Monthly Archives: April 2014

‘how we might continue to exist…’

Professor Heger’s Daughter, Chrissie Gittins, Paekakariki Press, £10
reviewed by Russell Jones

gittins prof heger

Is our world about to end?
I must draw, urge it to mend.

[“World Without End” p.20]

I’d never come across Chrissie Gittins’ work before. Her pamphlet, Professor Hedger’s Daughter, introduces her as a quite prolific writer of adult and children’s poetry, as well as a short story writer and radio playwright. What a find she is! Professor Heger’s Daughter is one of the finest pamphlets I’ve read in recent years, for its range of ideas, its emotional sensitivity, its great wit and humour, and – more than anything else – its deranged use of language. I mean that sincerely; this is a writer who isn’t resting on linguistic laurels, her words pop out of the page in a “what just happened” way that makes me want to soak it up and then revisit it over and over again.

The pamphlet is about many things and it’s hard to pin a theme down or hold it at gunpoint, but not to its degradation. Many of the poems are about loss and reconciliation. How do we cope with change and movement in life? This could simply be the migration of a man from the Shetlands to Glasgow, wondering where the wind disappeared to (‘The Man Who Moved From Shetland to Glasgow’) or something altogether more emotionally poignant, such as finding constant reminders of a missing loved one:

Are you by the floral teacups, beside the plate of scones?
Or in the yeast which lifts your father’s bread?

Perhaps you’re in the candlelight which wraps the Christmas tree,
or in the brush which coaxed your peat brown hair.

[“Where is Freya?” p.3]

There’s a clear reference here to Mary Elizabeth Frye’s 1930s poem, ‘Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep’ (“I am a thousand winds that blow. / I am the diamond glints on snow.”) but I find this altogether more successful in some ways, more personal through its homely approach and use of specific details.

A number of the poems become reflections on the presentation of memory, or the past, and the artistic imperative, or perhaps (in)ability to capture it. This offers a counterpoint to the art work in the book, prints from wooden engravings by Helen Porter. These are fine visual nuggets to digest, sometimes imagist, sometimes simply abstract. The two art forms combine to raise serious questions about the permanence of our creations and how we might continue to exist after we too are “lost”.

Gittins could be accused of verging on schmalziness (‘Isoal di Lolanda’, with its refrains: “Love is allowed to be … Love is allowed its day … Love has its way.”) but I think she more generally gets away with it. Her poetry is lifted by its fresh use of language, its witticism and absurdity, even if the idea within isn’t necessary the most original. I wholly recommend taking a read and I’d be very keen to read more of Gittins’ work. If you’re still not convinced, here’s an extract from the collection’s opening poem, ‘The Table Decker’s Daughter’:

Too soon, when all that was left were bones and stones,
it fell to me to whip the cloth away

and shake a veil of grey through an open window.
Is it any wonder he fell back into cake?

When the castle cat sat on the creation he threw
his box of colours to the ground.

I found him weeping in a pool of palest blue.
He’s content now with jumballs, biskets, candied fruits,

though once I caught him, eyes closed,
throwing his arms in arabesques across the kitchen floor,

dropping stags and mountain sheep
beside the open door.

Russell Jones

‘A Very Nearly Complete List…’

Luxe, Amy Key, Salt, £9.99
reviewed by Mark Burnhope

luxeTrue to its title and glamorous front cover (a matte-gold jacket, diamond-studded text), Luxe is filled with luxuries, both material (vintage fashion, brick-a-brac, trinkets) and immaterial (love, friendship, loss), for holding in the hand or wearing on the body figuratively. Many of these poems catalogue and list objects that represent the poet’s likes, loves, memories and desires.

I had read and enjoyed some of these poems online, so my expectations were fairly high. In reading, some of those expectations were subverted. For example, ‘Brand New Lover’ – the first poem, and one of the book’s more obvious love poems – has a looser, more conversational diction than my favourite tauter, more imagistic and fragmentary poems. For me, Key’s work is strongest when it lays found objects on the table and simply writes them with all their sumptuous vocabulary. That collage approach is described in the second poem of the book, ‘Here, For Your Amusement’, with its suggested dark side to hoarding precious items as nostalgic memory triggers:

I would like to be able to make a very nearly complete list,
of everything that matters to me, leaving nothing out.
Is that what it’s like to be afraid to die?

While it rarely wears ideology or politics on its sleeve, Luxe is feminist in the sense that it both flirts with and undermines classic, narrow tropes of womanhood, like ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’. I was torn between wanting more of the autobiography hiding under the clutter, and admiring how Key reveals herself through it; historically, male poets have largely owned the privilege of dressing up, writing in persona, playing an act, while women were largely expected to expose themselves in confession or domesticity. Against this backdrop, Key’s decision to make a “mood board” of herself instead is striking. Nevertheless, In ‘We Should Be Very Sorry If There Was No Rain’ – dedicated to Sarah Crewe – the inadequacy of objects to fill emotional spaces inspires an open love letter to friendship:

I mention lately I’ve lacked a honeyed mood,
delicates have evaded me. Again I’ve spent too much
trying to ornamentally tile my life.

That sensuous, tactile listing can be found in ‘Before The Waning Spiral Stairs’, with its “mouth whirled with steel-tinged rum”, “resin drifted from a bow”, “idly laced up in leather and weave”, “smoked my hair in a lime-washed cellar”. Or ‘Poem in Which’ (sharing its name with the online journal that Key co-edits). Its economy with language and imagery proves that naming is often description enough. That’s Key’s power; the ability to paint a nuanced, controlled self-portrait (or gallery of self-portraits) using the materials of her psychological, social and physical environments:

I describe ‘tulle’ and ‘chiffon’.
His eyes replace mine.
In which I walk down Lower Marsh with a paper bag of apples.
The wind laps at my ankles.
I covet the turquoise paisley dress.
I relent – as you wish, as you wish.
I leave my flat to the sockless beatnik.
Poem in which I have sequined ears.

Mark Burnhope

‘poetry is not everything…everything is poetry’

The Gypsy and the Poet, David Morley, Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Pippa Little

morley gypsy and poet
This remarkable and beautiful book reveals itself slowly in layerings and inter-weavings much as its language assumes natural forms of bird’s nest and hedgerow. At its heart is the evocation of a friendship between the poet John Clare and Wisdom Smith whose bare title of Gypsy does not do him, or his many skills and powers justice enough.

Carefully and painstakingly crafted, the collection opens with ‘The Invisible Gift’, a spellbinding evocation of poetry as act of creation rooted in nature and the senses, bringing alive its “small singing” in the face of “…all/the hungers of the world” and finishes with the eponymous poem which asserts human connection and continuity as a source of hope: “I call out to my child, and he is everywhere, and she is everyone.”

‘The Gypsy’ and ‘The Poet’ sequences are separated by a central section, ‘World’s Eye’, which works to re-calibrate focus on the main theme, rather as a birdwatcher might adjust his binoculars to look differently from new angles and distances. Through birds and birdsong the poet asks unexpected things of language in ways reminiscent of GM Hopkins. One extremely lovely poem, ‘Pallid Swift’, will never leave me.

The core of the collection is the charting of the relationship between poet and Gypsy as a powerful, difficult, loving friendship between two different creativities, not just between Clare’s sensitive, insecure, diffident spirit and Wisdom’s more robust, down-to-earth shaman but also between two world-views separated through metaphor of language: Wisdom Smith’s Romani which, like birdsong, seems always foreign, even untranslatable, counterpoints Clare’s visionary poetic continuously straining to transform thought into thing itself and vice versa.

Though ‘broken’, Wisdom’s emerges the stronger, able to puncture Clare’s more high-faluting Romanticism and see through its ultimately self-destructive desire for fame and recognition. Clare is drawn to the Gypsy way of life it seems because he idealises its freedom: Morley, through Wisdom, is blunt about its unpoetic deprivations and hardships. Wisdom’s language, encompassing his philosophy and identity, is the stronger for being grounded in an older tradition that does not adhere to ephemeral values. Clare is all insecurities: poetic, sexual, social – for example he builds walls and hedges, takes part in the enclosing of the land in order to survive, though he detests himself for doing so. Both are woven tight within the constraints of their lives like wild birds trapped in a net.

“John, I know no man no more half-in or half-out of your race” Wisdom tells Clare: though he lives beyond society as an ‘outsider’, Wisdom Smith appears far more secure in his own community than Clare will ever be in his.

When they are closest it is at a childlike, visceral, almost pre-verbal level. Both are passionate about the natural world, both are asking profound questions about their places in it and what it means to be alive. Morley charts how the friendship changes through the book, encompassing moments of menace, quarrels, reconciliation, misunderstanding between them and their eventual drift apart. It is a very enclosed, private, singular friendship: other Gypsies, John’s family, his Patron, none impinge directly on the time the two men spend together, talking, eating, working, thinking aloud, arguing. And the shadow of Clare’s oncoming madness darkens the final poems.

They are more than just two, however: the ‘real’ poet, Morley himself, is always present in his absence, creating a kind of floating triangular structure of Morley/Clare/Wisdom Smith in which they are all selves in constant transit in relation to one another, always fluid in identity. Who is alter-ego to whom? Morley is a poet of Romani origin and this situates his writing in a most interesting space where contradictions sprout richly and are allowed their significance even as aesthetic control is applied. In ‘Hedge Layers’ the analogy is clear when Wisdom Smith tells Clare: “The hedges of hawthorn yearn to become trees…/…/A pleacher reaches for its root through bark and sapwood/which is all in our cut and angle..” The great power of this book is to be able to embrace and hold contrasting truths:

‘Poetry is not everything. You know that, John,’ smiles the Gypsy.
‘You are wrong,’ dances Clare. ‘Everything. everything is poetry.’


The more I read this mysterious and beguiling book the more I find in it, most of all the image of the bird’s nest which becomes John Clare’s hat, the brim of which he leaned on when writing poems.

Pippa Little

“in everyday vocabulary”

The Waving Gallery, Mervyn Taylor, Shearsman Books, £8.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

mervyn taylorThe Waving Gallery is split into three sections: “Leaving”, “Overstayed” and “In Transit” with poems appropriate to the section’s theme. In the title poem, which is in the first section, various relatives are seeing the poet off,

…Across the tarmac the line
of travellers moved slowly, and the hills seemed
closer. I think I made out people in houses,

children in yards who could see me from that
distance, going away to study English, as if
it were not the language spoken here.

Like a lot of poems in this section, it seems to take a while to ‘warm-up’ and dashes off the most interesting concept in a one or two line conclusion. That the whole island seems to be waving the poet off isn’t as interesting as the idea of him going to a foreign country to do something seemingly foreign: study a common language and literature at university.

The more successful poems are when Mervyn Taylor turns his attention to others. ‘Shorty’ is from the “Overstayed” section:

The Spanish guy who lives downstairs
recently lost his wife. I used to see them
out front, her wheelchair angled against
the steps, his eyes tired from being up.

In my bad Spanish, I’d offer, ‘Como estás?’
Her ‘mucho dolor’ turning the evening
purple, her hands on her knees. Since
her death he sits alone, announcing

he has a washing machine and dryer to sell.
And a freezer, he adds, arms extended
to show the dimensions, a gesture that
seems an offer to hug, the size of the pain.

The final image extends the poem beyond the page, inviting readers in. It’s a finely-judged note of compassion. As with every poem in the collect it sticks to a conversational, easy to read tone in everyday vocabulary. The poet’s intention seems to be to reduce as many potential barriers to reading his poems as possible, ensuring a large, inclusive audience. This risks losing readers who want poetry to challenge or provoke them or to be more difficult to read than a newspaper article.

From the “In Transit” section, ‘Embassy’ focuses on unsuccessful visa applicants and draws in contemporary references,

I sit among them in the bar and watch
the news from Libya and Cairo,
how they burn flags and lob
grenades, while here the locals

finish their petit-quarts and ask
when will they fix the bridge
up the road, and how long did
it take me to get mine.

The reference to Libya and Cairo is unusual because most of the poems have a timeless quality and focus on personal interactions and connections with neighbours, commuters or passers-by. ‘Embassy’ captures a strong note of resignation. His counterparts won’t go and fix the bridge or lob grenades but instead accept this is how things are.

That reflects these poems too: they are eloquent and welcoming but won’t say anything world-shattering. That’s not the poet’s intention. It’s as though he wants to reassess how things are and ask if readers are comfortable with that.

Emma Lee