Monthly Archives: March 2014

“The slow unbraiding”

Homecoming, Carrie Etter, Dancing Girl Press
reviewed by Pippa Little

etter homecoming
Homecoming is a starkly beautiful pamphlet collection of 18 poems written for a melancholy homecoming: a daughter from far away returns to her dying father. The terrain is set out unflinchingly in the first poem where a fatal accident on the line stops the train in which the daughter rides home. Death comes close, palpable yet invisible.

The final prose poem, ‘A Better Grief’, looks back on the journey both emotional and geographical which the daughter has undertaken and weighs up the distances travelled, the place she has reached now:

“The slow unbraiding. As of waters easing into separate channels. To resolve means to loosen.”

The poems in between chart this process of “slow unbraiding” through the stages of desperate loss towards a kind of acceptance, an uneasy peace. The daughter’s fierce love for her father, her protectiveness of his frailty, is evoked without sentimentality and with forensic precision in ‘The Reclamation’ but for me the collection’s driving force is the poet’s exploration of bereavement and grief’s effects. Etter’s poems are visceral: she describes grief in the ways it changes the body, destabilises it. “…I kept falling/ as though descent were all I knew’ ‘…nothing mitigated// the plummet’s force.” (‘The Chorus’).

One particularly striking poem, ‘Pursuit, Dublin’, personifies grief as a nightmarish “destroying angel” on a crowded street. Shoppers “absorb him without a shriek” because he is only for her: loss has taken her into a sealed world where she “erode[s] by grains” towards disintegration of the self. Anyone who has lost a loved person will be able to recognise such states.

There are many further layers to these poems, including their sense of the absurd and a wry humour, as in the relationship between sisters in ‘Birthday’. Use of language and image is economical and effective. The chasm between the daughter’s childhood Midwest home where “All roads out of town part fields of corn, fields/ of soybean, each farm fixed by a clapboard house,/ by a silo gleaming its silver in the setting sun” (Proportion’) and the ‘West Country’ of her adult home in the UK “where it rains and rains and it rains” (‘His Pantoum’) serves to remind us movingly of all kinds of gaps and distances. That the hometown’s called Normal, Illinois, is also a source of mordant amusement. The arrangement of the poems without titles or page numbers serves to deepen their intensity. These are poems I will want to read again.

Pippa Little

“what there is to love about collaboration”

Pharmapoetica: a dispensary of poetry, Chris McCabe and Maria Vlotides, Pedestrian Publishing, £15
reviewed by Kathrine Sowerby

Recently shortlisted for The Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, Pharmapoetica: a dispensary of poetry is a collaboration between poet Chris McCabe and medical herbalist and artist Maria Vlotides.

Originally intended as an art installation, ‘a medical cabinet of poems’, Vlotides commissioned McCabe to write about 10 herbs from a choice of 20 that she presented to him along with her descriptions of the herbs. The constraints that McCabe then added – 10 poems in 7 days, the search for an extract of each herb and the length restricted by the size of a label – lead to economical yet potent poems imbued with the love and strains of parent/child relationships and the practicalities of family life.

I ask at the bar : do you have any absinthe?
Answer : No. We are parents. We have a boy.
The last drug we took was at his birth.


Written during a week spent on a Cornish campsite, the poems, simply titled after each chosen herb, are intimate and honest in a way the scaffolds of collaboration often permit. His wife and son, who he calls ‘the boy’ as he did in THE RESTRUCTURE, an earlier collection, feature in existential poems that smell and taste of the seaside.

…The Boy tends
the earth in yellow wellingtons. With the
wisdom of seasons : he plants what he knows.


Despite, or perhaps because of the transient quality of the poems, I found them moving. They flit in unexpected directions, underpinned by references to McCabe’s own experience of mental illness and its cures.

When the boy was less than one
I lost my mind in the holiday camp.
I lost it with the plastic eggs on the sand dunes.
I lost it with an elephant called Anxious.


Two books, the poems by Chris McCabe and the notes & photographs by Maria Vlotides, are bound in a wraparound cover, with the option of reading the poems on their own, printed in a fragile grey or, as I preferred, on the labels of apothecary jars in the notes & photographs with Vlotides’ descriptive history and usage of each herb on the opposite page.

With introductions and a foreword by Mario Petrucci there is a satisfying amount to read around the project. The enthusiasm of the collaborators is infectious and illustrates what there is to love about collaboration in all its forms; work born out of passions shared, that would not have existed otherwise.

Kathrine Sowerby

“as if life were a table laid”

Like the Living End, Peter Robinson, Worple Press, £7.00
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

The title poem and centre-piece of Robinson’s pamphlet is the long meditative poem ‘Like the Living End’ occasioned by the death of an old school friend, with whom Robinson shared an early interest in Bob Dylan and his lyrics. This poem, like others in the pamphlet, seems to draw on a conflict between Arcadian imagery and post-industrial decay. For instance in ‘Rubbish Theory’ we have echoes of Shakespeare colliding with an entropic view of society:

The streets are paved with takeaway
wrappers, strewn sheets, cans
and posters for elections…

In fact, the gravitas, settings and metrical meticulousness of Robinson’s poetry reminds the reader at times of Tony Harrison, but Robinson’s tone is more singly elegiac as compared with Harrison’s satirical and polemic bite. Robinson’s urge to unite the secular, contemporary world with that of the past, of the Ancients, often yields striking poems – such as a latter-day Orpheus stuck in the London underground or a middle-aged couple in their bathroom, ashamed of their bodies, cast as Adam and Eve. However, the focal point of the collection is grief, and how poets are to deal with the loss of friends and the guilty urge to make sense of this in poetry:

(forgive me, forgive me I’m co-opting you now).

But what else can I do with our dead ones
as we become people from history too?
Glad to be of use, you’re helpful still,
don’t want to cause her pain,
are practising duets with me
like this one in a minor key
with black notes to be borne in mind?
Let’s try it one more time again.

While this poem conveys real pathos, the reader is occasionally struck by the hermetic nature of the experiences/ reminiscences the poem discusses, as it is effectively a conversation with a dead friend. There are a number of poems in the pamphlet which give the impression that they are just filling space, providing a vehicle for this long poem. These poems are ‘Next to Nothing’, ‘All Change’ and ‘Between Parentheses’. All three discuss the fleetingness of life convincingly but seem to be geared up to a serio-comic and glib ‘punch-line’. The ‘I’m next to nothing now’ which closes ‘Next to Nothing’ is a homonym playing with the clichéd use of the phrase and the fact that the bed is missing a lover. ‘All Change’ is about literal and ontological distances travelled on trains and ends with the interjection of a tannoy announcement ‘All change, please, all change’. Finally ‘Between Parentheses’ is a poem of liminality where the speaker is ‘a multi-storey car park / where we can’t find the car’. Yet this poem seems to limp somewhat to its ending where the speaker is projected out of himself – ‘it’s as if I could see me now’.

However, I’d argue that the main poem of this pamphlet is ‘On the Esplanade’ and the few poems which mourn the death of the poet’s father. These surpass anything else in the pamphlet for their lyricism, insight and emotional heft. In this poem, the father (a retired rector) is nearing the end of his life when his son urges him to remember all of the people he has served:

…into a general amnesia go
all the babies he baptised,
the thousands married, churched and buried,
who prided himself on his good funerals…
‘Remember them, dad?’
                                    ‘Do I have to?’ he said,
those words come murmuring back to me
now low tide laps at mud and rocks
and I’m alone along the last
stretches of Grassendale Esplanade,
stopped by the wartime pillbox
still guarding an entrance to Garston Docks.
Then, look, two black birds, male and mate,
come pecking at somebody’s dusk patio
as if life were a table laid.

In keeping with some of Robinson’s poems about urban decay, it is worth noting that he comes closest to visionary poetic statements when he acts like an auspex, reading into the behaviour of birds the wider patterns of mankind.

Richie McCaffery

“previewing the fears of storm”

Leaf Graffiti, Lucy Burnett, Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Russell Jones

Leaf Graffiti is Lucy Burnett’s first collection of poetry, a book which ought to be my cup of chai as it explores urban and natural life through a frequently-scientific lens, which I’m keen on. She’s also designed the book’s cover and I must say that her visual art work, from the cover and a few other pieces I’ve seen, is excellent. So, even before opening up, I was ready to be on-board the Burnett train.

The book is made up of five key sections, although I did find it difficult at times to pin down what made each section distinct, or why one poem featured in one section rather than another. The first of these sections is a series of 17 line poems, each disjointed (graffiti-like) by utilising visual gaps, but with their own cohesion:

a siren bullies down the rush hour street
     setting sail to seagulls in the park
         it’s getting dark although an early wind
is rustling up the newborn leaves      the litter
hastens down the road      while the limegreen copper
beech is previewing the fears of storm

[‘xlii. narcotic‘]

The sequence works best when read as a whole, although is altogether a little too long and may struggle to keep your attention. There are some killer lines dotted throughout (my favourite being “welcome to Scotland we promise not to eat you”) but Burnett’s use of repetition within and between poems, whilst maintaining an almost-incantation feel, could be dismissed as a little bland. That said, she is singing a varied song of peoples and places in which most readers would find something to enjoy.

The book surprised me: the poems I most expected to like (the sciency ones, or those that experimented with form) were not necessarily my favourites. In fact I much preferred the more personal poems, those which hit a toffee hammer against the heart, and prodded me in the eye with a finger rather than with a pipette. Scientific language can be problematic outside of an academic paper, and Burnett’s use of such terminology occasionally alienated me, not least because it’s hard to visualise (“erstwhile photographs void of / haemoglobin chlorophyll” – from ‘xviii. Crevice‘). However there are definitely times when it works. In “Oval”, one of my favourite poems in the collection, the speaker describes the consultation, process and after effects of an opertion:

I watch my breath as bloody streams of oxygen,
drowning life from inside out. Doubts appear
quite clear in neurone etch-a-sketch –
steroid hormones more than just a concept

These medical terms add a certain visceral quality to the events being described, whilst also amplifying the narrator’s doubts as they attempt to mould scientific understanding into a coping mechanism or catharsis. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Edwin Morgan’s (who gets a mention in Burnett’s poem, “Slabs of Strawberry”) dialogue poem “Gorgo and Beau” in which a healthy cell and a cancerous cell debate their purpose in Morgan’s body, albeit different in approach.

This is a book of places and ideas, often – but not always – satisfying. Its language can be enthralling at times, but mundane at others. There are interesting ideas, some exhilarating turns of phrase, but somehow not quite enough to keep me yearning and coming back for more. I want to take out my scissors and cut it back because the good bits really are good, but they’re a little lost amongst the browning leaves.

Russell Jones

“real events in an unreal mould”

At Maldon, J.O. Morgan, CB Editions, £8.99
reviewed by Pippa Little

at maldon Morgan
I enjoyed this. A long-ago battle, lost, and a half-lost poem. From these J.O. Morgan has fashioned At Maldon, a satisfying book-length panorama of the August day in 991 when Vikings and Anglo-Saxons met across the Essex river and then fought to the death. That initial time of waiting when each side watches the other is particularly well imagined: then the battle itself begins and we are spared nothing of the gore and the violence of hand to hand fighting. The poem has a satisfying narrative force which carries the reader along as if in the heat of the action yet also depicts the battle from afar with some skilfulness so we see events unfold as if they were a chess game or a pattern in process.

The form is alliterative and echoes that of the original poem but deliberately surprises with references to modernity such as cricket balls, designated drivers, tea-towels, even bin-liners:

It begins with crows,
black flecks against the blue,
like bits of bin-liner flapping on the wind

At first this feels odd but as the poem develops it becomes a deliberate tactic to defamiliarise and unsettle: this poem wants not merely to revisit the past but as the ‘Argument’ puts it

“to cast the real events in an unreal mould and in so doing hope perhaps for accidental truth” for it’s an “unreliable poem from a poet not permitted on to the field” who analyses “second-hand accounts…for misrememberings”

The effect is a powerful one. Old Byrhtnoth and groom of his “great white horse” Godric fall before the Danesmen, brothers die together, there is both heroic courage and a slipping-away by those who can see the battle is lost. More than anything this long poem seems to me to explore the visceral, balletic-like performance of any battle, the soldiers “athletes who practise for hour upon hour” engaged in a strange kind of dance beyond ‘reality’ where enemies are intimate, admiring, even as they cut each other down.

Pippa Little

“from being there to not”

Pink Mist, Owen Sheers, £12.99, Faber
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

pink mist sheers
Excepting Sassoon, Brooke and Owen can you name one other war poet? Where are all the great WWII poets and the Vietnam War poets? Did the First World War poets have the last word on what’s wrong with war? Actually, no. But Owen’s verse in particular tempered a new, gritty realism—gone are the heroics that typified epics likes Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’—with a degree of romanticism which made the truth of his poetry palatable, memorable and hard to better.

A century on the mechanics and vocabulary of warfare may have changed but has its essence? No. ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ is as relevant as it was in 1917 but who takes Latin nowadays? Pink Mist says nothing essentially new but couches it in language the Facebook generation will get. Likely in another hundred years it’ll need updating again.

Where it differs from what’s gone before is that it concentrates on the aftermath, how war affects both soldiers and their families. The book focuses on “three friends who’d once linked arms at school/ …chanting like fools,/ Who wants to play war?” But when the opportunity presents itself they enlist for all the wrong reasons: there’re no decent jobs in Bristol and the ads are just too tempting. They do a lot of growing up in the six weeks tour in Afghanistan: Taff, “the army made him./ But then they broke him too”; Hads, cut “down from six foot two to four foot three” and Arthur who returned seemingly unscathed but wound up going back “to hurt someone,/ to satisfy that hunger/ before [he] missed his chance.” None of them “come home proper from the war:”

But I did come back. I did.

       No you didn’t. Not Arthur anyhow.
       Some other bloke, perhaps. But not my man.

As a verse-drama Pink Mist was written to be performed and has been on Radio 4. It utilises common language, some dialect and a few specialist terms that necessitate the inclusion of a glossary. The poetry fades into the background a little from time to time but not entirely as this extract shows:

Pink mist. That’s what they call it.
When one of your mates hasn’t just bought it,
but goes in a flash, from being there to not.
A direct hit. An IED. An RPG stuck in the gut.
However it happens you open your eyes
and that’s all they are.
A fine spray of pink, a delicate mist
as if some genie has granted a wish.
There, and then not.
A dirty trick you pray isn’t true.
White heat. Code red. Pink mist.

One of several powerful images that will stay with you. The language isn’t as catchy as Owen’s but I can imagine this being performed in English classes and holding the kids’ attentions plus the girls are certainly not left with nothing to say; they provide important counterpoint. I can certainly see this on the syllabus in a few years. Alongside Owen, a suitable complement.

Jim Murdoch

“a nest of crocks”

Scrimshaw, Jean Watkins, Two Rivers Press, £7.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

Collecting and making decorative objects is a recurring theme, as would be expected from the title, Scrimshaw, named after carvings made by sailors on tusks, bones, shells or whatever was to hand, and brought home as souvenirs. ‘Glass’ explains how Jean Watkins began collecting antique glassware,

riffling through coats in Oxfam.
A slat of sun just caught it, made me go
over to the bric-a-brac shelves although
I knew nothing of glass. I liked its weight,
its clunkiness, the barley sugar coil
inside the stem. The way it swells
to a cone-shaped cup in perfect balance
with the foot. It felt right in my hand.
Of course it led to libraries, the V&A,
a change to Fine Art and you know the rest.
I still remember plastic hangers clicking,
a smell of mothballs just before I saw it.

I would have preferred the focus to remain with the contrast between the valued glass and its impoverished surroundings in a charity shop. The drift away to libraries and Fine Art feels unnecessary. The detail of the glass itself is far more heightened, sensual and poetic without being overtly so.

Most of these poems are free verse with one verbal mirror poem and one sonnet that follows the Thames through history from a foul waste cesspool to clean wildlife haven. Jean Watkins’ interest in nature comes through in other poems too, e.g. ‘Shinglebacks’ who are lizards who mate for life,

And when in a roaring cloud of dust a truck wheel
runs over a lazy lizard, which happens often,
its mate will stay for hours by the corpse,
nudging it gently, waiting for life to resume.

The alliterative cliché should have been cut: reptiles aren’t lazy anyway, they can’t move if their blood isn’t sufficiently warm. I’m not convinced the mate can be “waiting for life to resume” either and the line could be cut because the previous line shows what’s happening and doesn’t need an explanation. There is a great subject for a poem here, but this poem isn’t doing it justice.

I wanted more poems like this one, ‘Teacup’

I dig over heavy clay soil,
Earthworms siphoning themselves away,
my spade clinks of a nest of crocks:
china like shark fins; once a cup,
fluted, gilt-edged, painted with tulips

Imagine the artist leaning to her work,
her small round spectacles and apron
daubed with paint. The brush’s flame
igniting petals in a cold workroom
at Hanley, Burslem or Stoke-on-Trent.

And a young man’s too large fingers
clutching the curved and pointed handle
of the teacup, hers crumpling the corner
of her embroidered napkin, her parents
clawing sugar cubes with their silver tongs.

How in 1917 the cup slipped
from the daughter’s sudsy hands,
cracked into five pieces, while he
lurched over mud, was ruptured
by a shell, buried in clay heavy soil.

It’s focused, it conveys a satisfying image of the cup’s journey from manufacture to ending up as broken crockery in a garden and epitomises what Scrimshaw is about.

Emma Lee