Monthly Archives: February 2014

“a different sound world”

Ethiopia Boy, Chris Beckett, Oxford Poets/Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Steven Waling

It’s not often that one reads a book of poetry which brings a different music into English poetry; but Ethiopia Boy does just that. The African praise poem is not much appreciated in England; but Chris Beckett, who spent his formative years in Ethiopia, has managed to make use of it in a very supple, subtle way to talk of his childhood and the country he knew then.

Sometimes, for instance, he uses a song-like refrain: “wanzey wanzey” in ‘The Goodbye Tree’ for instance, and there is about the whole collection a different sound world from most English poetry. This carries over even into the concrete poems of ‘Sticks’, which mimic the shapes of all kinds of sticks found in Ethiopia. On the whole, the rhythms dance from line to line rather than simply flow, and you could almost imagine them being backed by drums and kora:

There was a boy in a white-painted house
           I have a cow in the sky!
               a cow in the sky!

who spilled some warm milk on the clean kitchen floor

[‘ Cow In The Sky’]

…or whatever the equivalent would be in Ethiopia (our Western ignorance of Africa is pretty all-embracing.)

It deals with the pleasure and sadness of growing up in Ethiopia in such a natural way that you’re never aware that your view of the country alters as you go along. It mentions the great drought and the Mengistu period (the Red Terror of one poem) without going into the horrors of it; one gets the feeling of the inevitable distance of being English in Africa, and of the writer’s regrets about leaving behind friends.

All this is achieved though with a lightness of touch and a plainness of diction that is ultimately touching and universal. I’d recommend it to all those looking for a way out of the usual English anxieties about form, because this is neither formalist nor is it particularly ‘experimental’. Its eyes are directed at the world around it, a world full of African music and people dancing to old-new musics across an ancient and beautiful continent.

Steven Waling

“black truths by heart across our thresholds”

To the War Poets, John Greening, Carcanet, 2013, £9.95
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

In a documentary on Belgium’s quirks and mores, the TV presenter Jonathan Meades considered the enduring draw of Europe’s killing fields as a phenomenon he termed ‘death tourism’. If the urge to visit such fields is death tourism, is the urge to bring to life dead war poets through the imagination and epistolary verses between dead and living poets a form of ‘death poetry’? It seems that John Greening’s timely and substantial collection, To the War Poets, is doing much more than offering the reader a cheap and thanatic thrill of re-living death and bloodshed in the trenches and exclaiming the horror. In poems such as ‘To Edmund Blunden’ the speaker considers the horror the legacy of the war has become as a money-spinning tourist attraction:

A far cry from the throng back in the Flanders Fields Museum.
The tin helmet over the litter bin swings in the breeze
beside my metal bench. There are cyclists. And a lady’s
terrier snaps and growls at someone’s knapsack. It is all
… I cough and cough. But not because there’s gas.

I was initially worried that Greening would act in this collection as a necromancer ventriloquist of various famous War poets. The first few poems seem to do this, to mimic the style of poets such as Rosenburg, Stramm and Trakl. Trakl is particularly well captured:

The winter storm’s mad organ playing
is like the Volk’s dark fury,
the black-red tidal wave of onslaught,
defoliated stars.

[‘On the Eastern Front’]

After these initial scene and tone setting poems, the collection deepens into the larger theme of lessons not learned and the looming presence of conflict in society up to the present day. With such grave life and death subject matter it is not surprising that Greening’s tone occasionally slips into didacticism, for instance in ‘Reading John Clare on New Year’s Eve’ the speaker muses upon what will last a cruel and fleeting culture of celebrities:

When we had heard that distant New Year bell,
we would be carrying his black truths by heart
across our thresholds, not thumbing a remote.

Perhaps an intentional intertextual effect of the collection, I felt a number of times I had been in the same place before. In the poem ‘To Siegfried Sassoon’ we see how the television is an electronic juxtaposition of scenes of war which can be instantly changed to brain anaesthetising frivolities like dancing girls and music halls. It is the image of the TV in the corner of the hotel room which reminded me strongly of Ian Hamilton’s ‘Newscast’ where the “Vietnam war drags on/ in one corner of our living room” and where smoke only comes from cigarette puffing heads.

Greening is to be praised for remembering that the poetry of World War One in the English language should not be considered in a purely Anglo-centric light, so it is good to see a poem for Charles Hamilton Sorley. Although this poem reminds the reader of the conflicted Scottishness of the poet, it also celebrates the uniqueness of his contribution to the canon of War poetry:

…on that autumn
night in Loos

when you found a spook
song – Süsser Friede – bursting
from your vanished mouth.

[‘To Charles Sorley’]

Certainly, this is a collection haunted by echoes and revenants, even Robert Graves who is only too painfully aware that according to military papers, he was officially dead in action. Greening is to be praised for marshalling together out of the vortex such a range of voices to come up with a collection that muses on what has changed, if anything, in the centenary century. What is striking about this collection is the sheer vitality and multiplicity of voice – how words and poetry can endure – in the midst of mass graves and war torn lands:

or beneath the hundred thousand crosses
left by men who could never spell
themselves, imagine it grinning from their skulls

or groaning in the pelvic bones of women
who bore it, a surge from this serpent bend
of the river into every green corner.


Richie McCaffery

“a mix of awkwardness and facility”

Unfinished Business, Gene Barry, Doghouse Books, €12
reviewed by Fiona Moore

‘Growing Down’, the opening poem in this first collection, has an epigraph from Oscar Wilde – ‘Be yourself. Every one else is taken’. The adults in the speaker’s life

.. gave me lies and pain,
disbelief and discouragement;
selflessness stood in a queue.
It hurt to lose oneself.
When I start again, it
will be a million miles
nearer my childhood self.

Those last three lines read like a manifesto for Barry, who founded the Fermoy International Poetry Festival. <a href="Unfinished Business“>Unfinished Business documents life from family outwards to friends, neighbourhood and wider world. Poems about Barry’s children mix loving memories with analysis of how that love works. ‘Time Flown’ counts down to one child’s start at secondary school. Three consecutive verses begin:

Five years filling the Piranha Pine bookshelf
I made for you, of three times a week swimming…

Three days of secondary school,
delivering you and my new passengers in your
sensibly too-big uniforms and big-girl bags…

A split second of peer pressure and your larynx
is silenced, your lips un-puckered and your heart
astray with the introduction of an uncool flutter.

It seems to me that there’s a mix of awkwardness and facility in these poems. “Too-big uniforms” is just right – accurate and a little sad. But the next three lines feel forced – “larynx” feels both distancing and clumsy, as do “lips un-puckered”, and “with the introduction”. This style may work better in performance. Similarly in the opening poem, “selflessness stood in a queue” is original and the closing declaration fluent; while examples or metaphors might have had more impact than the generalities in the first two lines quoted, and “oneself” in a first-person poem is awkward.

I think this unevenness applies to many poems. Not all: ‘Generating’, a poem for friends, set among tractors, daffodils and calves, describes their new-born as “same age / as the soda bread I baked last Sunday”. In the page-long list poem ‘She was’, the surprise is sustained:

a sea that couldn’t take lives
a favourite sister
a below the waist swipe
a found sock

Poems about earlier generations are darker. ‘In their Kitchens’ imagines aunts’ “spinster dreams / of children arriving without sex, / with good manners and obedience”. This bitter poem may work better for writer than for reader. “Spinsters”, stereotyped either as above or desperate for sex, appear in a couple of other poems. Barry writes better where he loves; or in empathy with misunderstood characters, as in ‘Beautiful Man’.

There are story poems: bad relationships, imagined letters from a member of the brutal Black and Tans, and parallel scenes in the Gaza Strip and Ireland. Some I couldn’t unravel, for example ‘Managing’. ‘I Appeared at the Opera House’ stands out because of its fluency. It begins

as an eleven year old tea-boy;
Craven A, Bristols, Carrols, slices of donkey’s gudge,
loose tea, warm milk, the paper in the morning,
‘Echo’ in the afternoon, billy cans, unlabelled
salad cream bottles, loads and loads of men spitting…

Fiona Moore

“the last of a word is fading…”

Sudden rainfall, Helen Calcutt, Perdika Press, £4.95
reviewed by Pippa Little

sudden rainfall
Sudden rainfall is an elegantly produced pamphlet, number 18 in a series which presents ‘original and translated work by contemporary poets’ including Jacqui Rowe and Mario Petrucci (one of the series’ editors). The translations, listed on the jacket, are in capitals: APOLLINAIRE, CATALLUS, AKHMATOVA, while the original work is in lower case – Somewhere is January by Petrucci, bedbound by David Pollard and now Sudden rainfall (sic) which mixes the two. I haven’t read any others of this series and am interested in the contrasting choices hinted at in this list. The aim of Perdika Editions is to publish work whose ‘distinctiveness… is complemented by a common commitment to scrupulous innovation, a refashioning of language of and for its time.’

Helen Calcutt’s collection begins with a poem called ‘Sunrise’ and the final poem, ‘Twilight’, ends

…the last of a word
is fading – leaving

the imprint
of rose

In between, poems such as ‘Dawn’, ‘Seasons’, ‘Half Light’ and ‘Storm’ return again and again to light and to natural phenomena such as mist, rain, the wind, to landscapes described obliquely and to suggested states of mind and emotion. There are some lovely images and phrases here (“smoke of flies” and “Frost picks at the sun. Like dew/over a run of metal, hammered bright/into seasonal concentration”), but the overall effect is like trying to decipher an album of old, half-developed negative photographs. They are ghostly and faded, concealing more than they reveal. The heightened note of ‘intense metaphysical probing’ promised on the back cover is undermined for me by a vagueness in approach which uses too many generalisations and abstractions. I’m left baffled by the poem ‘The silence (in the dance of the swallows)’ which includes two questions:

Through iron thickets a quiet
broken evening. Does your head
on the desk resemble the sun
going down beyond itself?

And the concluding:

How do you appear among
dapples of light, when the wall
Is your finger?

The ‘you’ seems to be the poet (and/or the silence) first and then in the second quote the birds, whose “wings/ murmur, as they once did” – but then I am lost with the wall and its finger, as I am confused by the head on the desk resembling the sun going down beyond itself. It’s not that I have read these poems quickly or carelessly – I have read and re-read them as the ‘attentive reader’ invited to do so on the back cover. I may be missing something vital that makes them beat with a pulse, but their nebulous, floating effect leaves me with wanting more blood than mist running through their veins.

Pippa Little

“caught in life and brushed with death”

If This Were Real, Gerda Stevenson, Smokestack Books, £7.95
reviewed by Gregory Leadbetter

if_this_were_realThere’s a poem here that brought me to a stop. In ‘Co-Op Funeral Parlour’, the speaker contemplates her own child, as the infant lies in a coffin:

your head in my palm yesterday,
skull barely masked by paper skin,
you were undeniably mine.
An imposter lies in this small white box
we ordered – a collector’s doll,
lace-framed face mounted
on a slice of shop-window silk.

I would quote it all if space allowed. The poem’s vertiginous emotional charge is achieved by the unflinching control of the language in the face of intimate, inscrutable devastation – as if daring itself to find the image, and let that image do its dark work. This fine poem feels like the hinge of a collection – despite its concerns with war and politics – frankly autobiographical in basis. The book is filled with the correlations of yearning and nostalgia, loss and hope, a sense of being caught in life and brushed with death. It is unapologetically personal; the mental states it cycles through all clear.

The virtues of If This Were Real will also be its faults. It does not give the impression of being terribly concerned with finding the leading edge of contemporary poetry – which may not matter, but which may have something to do with the feel the poems sometimes have of being gifts for friends and relatives. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive: this poet’s acknowledgement of her interconnectedness with other people is also attractive, but there is often a lingering sense that a memory, say, which a poem might address, is left more alive for the poet than the poem is for the reader.

The poem ‘First Love’ (alas!) is one such piece: it does not quite make it past the personal and into something more. The reader arrives at the poem’s final lines, when the lovers “foot it back, home to the hills/ in the frosted air” with the belief that this was a special time for the two concerned – but not enough has been done to give the reader an imaginative experience independent of the event in which the poem has its origin.

On a related point, too many verses don’t quite earn their keep. As an opening line, “On a mellow spring morning” leaves an awful lot for the rest of the poem to do – which it might just have achieved but for the final line: “in the bright sunshine of another year” (‘Passing Through’). There is simply not enough happening in the language here for it to hold the attention, as poetry. Imagery and rhythm occasionally fold flat into something that sounds like cliché: “His eyes hold the tale he/ has to tell, cinnamon eyes,/ and a smile spiced with loss” (‘Asylum Seeker’).

Thankfully, there is much here that retains the advantages and sidesteps the dangers of Stevenson’s idiom – as when “your white face rises over the ridge,/ small moon cradled in low-slung boughs,/ and my love rises at the gift of you” (‘Child in the Woods’).

If This Were Real puts me in mind of a personal exhibition of watercolours, as opposed to a Turner-esque blaze of being. Nevertheless, the collection has something of a quest about it – of a homeopathic, self-healing process, and the desire to pass on something of that process to its readers. Its animating, pervasive feeling is akin to unaffected human kindness – and of resilience in remaining open to experience. Two lines from the collection’s final poem capture something essential to its character: “Still a fillet of sunlight on the brow above,/ my goal to be splashed by those rays” (‘Beyond Fairliehope’).

The best poems here – like ‘Co-Op Funeral Parlour’, with which I’m still light-headed – fuse figurative and emotional life to haunting effect. It will be interesting to see which directions Stevenson takes from here on.

Gregory Leadbetter

“moments seen through other moments”

Sweet Coffee, Margaret Wilmot, £5.00, Smiths Knoll
reviewed by Jim Murdoch
Sweet Coffee image
Margaret Wilmot was born in California and spent various years working in the Mediterranean before settling in Sussex in 1978. ‘Writing, for me, is a tool for making connections and refining perception—always a search . . .’ she writes although I expect most writers could say much the same. I mention her history first because it provides the backbone of the collection: we begin in the States, head through Greece and Egypt and wind up in sunny Eastbourne.

In the title poem of this pamphlet (which you can find here) a premonition and an instance of déjà vu are triggered by a Proustian cup of coffee; “imagination and memory are but one thing,” Hobbes said and which scientists are now proving. In some respects it’s an inconsequential poem—how many cups of coffee do we have in a lifetime?—but it’s a good opener for this collection as Margaret talks a lot about how we perceive distant things. Three poems, for example, use arrows as metaphors, connecting distant objects:

Even as the fullness swells we must give chase,
with arrows consummate the longed-for intimacy.

[‘Ducks, geese’]

Of course the arrows don’t always hit their marks. Instead of remembering a past we reconstruct it; rather than the true past we opt for the preferred past, postcards from the past:

What does one say when it’s cats and primroses
which fill a mind now emptying like a room?
Or maybe not – who can gasp a moment
which brims like light and spills out over things?

[‘Who live each moment now’]

“Things emerge. Fade.” Once we travelled and “not only in the mind”; “one’s whole body entered on a quest”:

Now it’s Google, and the loss of that dull space

along blank streets, when suddenly
you think – and stop to make a note. Or don’t think.


All the time one thing reminds us of another:

The pond ripples and the duck’s plump breast
lifts, I see the thin sheen
of polished wood, wing feathers etched…


Several of the poems are clearly talking about older people struggling to cope. The most poignant, for me at least, was ‘Thinning’:

Terrible this thinning –
yet her body like a plum rests

full of roundness on the chair.
He has cut her meal in little bites, and eats his own

without much mind.

I love the double meaning in that last line. The blurb says, “These are poems about connection—through geography, family, over bridges of thought: moments seen through other moments, the layers which constitute now.” It’s a good description. Google remembers the world but it doesn’t remember us. What makes us us? A drive “along/ the north shore of Lake Erie”, “a pair of Robin Hood boots”, a striped cat who’s “a compendium both of all things/ cat and all the cats [we’ve] ever known”: things, just things, and things they give rise to.

You can hear Margaret read ‘A guard came out’ here. And you can read two more reviews of the pamphlet at Sphinx.

Smiths Knoll has now closed its doors but the collection’s available on the poet’s website.

Jim Murdoch

“With a POW!”

Play With Me, Michael Pedersen, Polygon Books, £9.99
reviewed by Mark Burnhope
Play With Me
Confession: I wish poetry was (amongst other, contradictory, things) more popular: not popularist, just widespread. The sheer ubiquity of music and film has tended to show that ‘pop’ and not-pop can co-exist; can give ‘the good stuff’ (whatever you say it is, and now’s not the time) a fighting chance of being found by a discerning audience.

Play With Me is unashamedly splashed with pop memes (the “POW!” of my title is referenced in the poem ‘Shapes of Every Size’, accompanied by one of several comic-style illustrations by Carrie May) – as refreshing as its endorsements from Stephen Fry, Irvine Welsh, Liz Lochhead and John Hegley (only two of whom are known for poetry). Pop references are nothing new, of course, and can feel like product placement – if not to sell products, then to prove a writer is ‘on the pulse’. But pop culture is just part of Pedersen’s world. The outdated movie titles in ‘Manchester John’, set in an NHS overdose clinic, are essential in painting the setting’s stale medical atmosphere:

Drips from leaky roofs.
Kids paw mangled movie mags;
their thumbed reviews of Men in Black,
Titanic, a sequel to Jurassic Park,
are this ward’s longest residents.

The two opening poems – ‘Colmar’ (about a horny teenager on a French exchange) and ‘R.I.P Porty High School’ – reminded me less of poetry (except a dash of Mick Imlah) and more of TV shows like Grange Hill, or Generation Y’s The Inbetweeners, although Pedersen is no cheeky-chappy ‘mockney’ but a cursing Scot: “Like his faither afore him, / ma faither kicked fuck oot ma maither.” Like The Inbetweeners, Pedersen’s stereotypes aren’t always satisfyingly subverted. ‘RIP Porty High School’, about the controlled demolition of an inner-city school, cuttingly mocks the bourgeois establishment we dissenting students became:

The explosion is sure-fire
to muster a crowd:
bullied boys turning out
in thousands, who,
despite the salary, are
still clamouring
for comeuppance.

But the cliché of “svelte Thai brides” on the arms of rich men is notable for its racial caricature more than its critique of elitism (although that they are “pretending, now, / to like the fitbaw” is a nice detail), marring an otherwise effective ending in which “others emerge / clasping books / of Collected Poems, / their names on the spine.” Elsewhere, the Cambodia poems in section III occasionally succumb to one danger of ‘poetry tourism’: a humour that, for me, didn’t sit quite right in context.

Aside from a few misgivings, Play With Me is the kind of unique, crafted and entertaining book which (amongst other, contradictory, things) I’d like to see more of. Michael Pedersen’s poetry is refreshing for being performance-ready and crafted (his loud alliteration will divide readers, but I’m a fan. In ‘Dead Skin and Stray Fingernails’: “The driveway is busy, the drapes / no longer droop”). Confident on page and stage, Pedersen has already proven popular. I’ll be keeping an eye on how he develops his refreshing mix of skills.

Mark Burnhope