Monthly Archives: May 2014

“the vocabulary of colour”

Eva and George – Sketches in Pen and Brush, Abegail Morley, Pindrop Press, £7.99
reviewed by Judith Taylor

When a poet draws on external material (history, biography, other artforms), the show/tell question is often tricky. Too much apparatus can diminish the poems and distract the reader, or indeed the writer (I speak as the author of a sequence which, but for wise editorial intervention, would have had not just endnotes but statistical tables): but an absolutist insistence that poems must stand by themselves also carries a risk, that those poems may have to contain (literally) too much information, too much that is properly the work of prose.

Abegail Morley’s pamphlet depicts the satirical artist Georg Grosz and his wife Eva Peter, in the period between their meeting in Berlin in 1916 and their emigration to the US in 1933. This takes in a lot of history, much of it grim. At the same time, readers are more than likely unfamiliar with Grosz’s art, which is central to the sequence. Morley largely avoids the pitfalls, giving the reader pointers, but not so many as to obstruct the poetry: a brief introduction and minimal notes to the poems; a small selection of reproductions to give a flavour of Grosz’s work; and a more detailed timeline kept to the end.

Her choice of Eva’s point of view is one I occasionally questioned: Georg’s own voice (as apparent in the two quotations that bookend the sequence) was articulate and engaging, and the second- and third-person of the poems sometimes imposes too much distance. On the whole, though, I think it is the right approach, letting us see the artist as well as the art, and making more explicit connections between them and the external events that shaped both.

It also allows the art to be described in something approaching lay terms: technicalities come in mainly in the vocabulary of colour, accessible to the reader and at the same time satisfyingly evocative and precise.

Ebert dies and you want to paint Germany cobalt blue,
say it’s the colour of silence, how it turns white
when there’s too much noise.

[‘Oil Painting: 1925’]

In poems that are mainly short, and plain in form, and which largely eschew imagery other than Georg’s own, the colours take us out of the literal into emotional and symbolic dimensions –

Sounds like boots. Black boots. Marching boots.

You tell me everything is schwarz, that your nightmares
throw their arms around you each night….

[‘1921: Deutschland Uber Alles’]

Even the ferocious ‘Burgerbraukeller: 1923’ dramatises the couple’s hatred, and fear, of Hitler almost in terms of art, albeit an art not Grosz’s own:

we want to slit him open,
drag the middle from him

black as bitumen,
lay him out like we’re morticians,

inject his carotid artery, puncture
his hollow organs, fill his carcass

with Egyptian red gold

The cost of using Eva as our lens is the extent to which it effaces her – most startlingly when she describes the birth of their first child: “Peter Michael joins us in cadmium red” (‘1926: Stammhalter’) – although she was clearly a strong character in her own right. But where she is given metaphorical language of her own, as when she describes her husband

         opening and closing your sketchbook
like it’s a pair of wings desperate to leave

[‘Widmung an Oskar Panizza’]

the effect is all the more striking. The clipped intensity of the early poems recreates very effectively the tense, constrained lives the couple lead in the early inter-war period.

At some points, however, the approach worked less well for me: the handling of external events is occasionally heavy-handed, most jarringly in the poem from 1921 just quoted, which ends

         Hitler becomes leader
of the Nazi party – we wonder whose name

will last the test of time.

And in the later part of the sequence I felt events were being allowed to flash past too quickly, and an increasing reliance on our knowledge of the external context. The abrupt ending with the couple’s departure from Germany leaves a sense of unresolved struggle, particularly as the endnotes reveal that in a way they did not escape: poverty and depression followed them into their new life, and after Georg’s sudden death in 1958 Eva filed a successful restitution claim for the damage done to them by the Nazi persecutions.

I think, though, that the problem is not with the poems so much as with the constraints imposed by the pamphlet format. I would have liked to see these poems given more room to expand, both in historical breadth and in biographical depth. But as they stand they are a powerful achievement – an intense, unsettling and often salutary read.

Judith Taylor

“a gem-studded, disjointed road trip”

Glovebox and Other Poems, Colin Herd, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, £8
reviewed by Kathrine Sowerby

Before reading Glovebox and Other Poems, I cut up an envelope to bookmark my favourite poems without realising there was a letter inside. I read it, pieced together like a jigsaw, much like this collection in which themes and tones are repeat patterns, mirroring the clothes, colours, designs that the poems talk about.

And it does feel like the poems are talking to you. Informal in style but confidently crafted, Herd’s linguistic energy draws you in. In an interview he cites Frank O’Hara as being a big influence and the echoes are certainly there to be relished.

One thread that runs through the collection are how-to-draw poems: an apple, a bunch of grapes, a milk carton. The poems could be taken from an online tutorial; what we get are step-by-step instructions from an intimate, bordering on sinister, voice:

first use a nice piece of white
paper I don’t want you using
any of that lined paper you can
if you want but I prefer
this a clean slate


Then there are the design poems that talk us through the components of a rug, a shoe, a sweater, soap.

                                                 so the next
step is to make a surprise move away from
yellow altogether but to something
complementary– like a pinot noir. except, we’re
going lurex, like prada did. svelte and sour.

[‘sweater design’]

‘Glovebox’, the title poem, is a gem-studded, disjointed road trip that travels around sights and sounds that build like detritus and belongings in a car. Memories even. Words and images pass at speed and break apart as quickly as they form.

languedoc. toi et moi.

and the pony. and
the picnic. and me.

we wear aloe


Colin Herd is a main player in the Edinburgh poetry scene and co-runs the Sutton Gallery where he hosts regular reading nights. He also reviews art and I enjoyed his not-too-obscure art world references. The poems avoid flippancy with astute observations and the odd one like ‘Balloon Fish Detonation’ that fell flatter than others felt like a necessary muted colour on the palette.

Most of all, on top of all the delicious colours, I had fun with this collection. A short poem, ‘melisma’, was one of many that made me smile a lot, which is refreshing, and the feeling lasted once I’d left it, like having visited with a highly skilled host.

there’s still a bit of time, so you
lay out a small dish of silverskins.
they’re not conventional, but they’re
there now and really, they don’t look

[‘a party’]

Kathrine Sowerby

“even the sea is thirsty”

A Choir of Ghosts, Janette Ayachi, Calder Wood Press, £4.50
reviewed by Pippa Little

choir of ghosts
“But the compound of life is porous…” [‘The Campbell Sisters’], porous and thirsty: these poems don’t flinch from desire and need, they reach out and grasp their world in all its damaged glory. Janette Ayachi creates a rich atmosphere, sensual and heightened, almost turn-of-the-century in its opulence as she crosses time and space from Venice to Dieppe, Vermeer to Ward Eight in poems of grief and remembrance. “I dress for the night, she is hungry for me” [‘Room in Glasgow’]: the night is part spirit world in which “fog rises like cigar smoke” [‘Seascape’], and in part where mysteries emerge as if darkness paradoxically exposes the hidden elements of life to new scrutiny.

There are some lovely poems: ‘Watching the World With August Sander’ intrigues me with its slanted evocation of what it is to be a poet or even seer, someone-who-sees, while the ekphrastic poems suit Janette Ayachi’s theatrical and painterly style very well. There is a strong sense of a young poet flexing her linguistic muscles and exerting her considerable gifts. The plainer, less adorned poems such as ‘Hiatus’ and ‘Clouds from Marseilles to Annaba’ (this latter being my favourite in the collection) signal another possible path: it will be interesting to see how the writing develops. I think Janette Ayachi might find in future collections that her original and striking vision may not need so many overtly ‘poetic’ words, for example the repeated ‘nocturne’ and ‘canto’, or ‘crepuscular’, ‘glissando’. Having said that, I appreciate that Janette Ayachi is well-known as an accomplished performer of her work and so the dramatic quality of these poems may come across differently when spoken than on the page.

“Gondolas sail their selfish smiles in circles” [‘Veins of Venice’] is fantastic: so too is “The sea froths like an old mouth” [‘Seascape’] and there are many other delights. ‘Slick Valkyrie’ remakes a family story into a chilling and resonant myth and ‘Hessian Lungs’ evokes more than illness. The opening poem sets out the time-shifting, supernaturally-infused landscapes explored further on and finishes with a memorable expression of longing:

…because in a blink it is only scent that remains
and tonight darling even the sea is thirsty.

[‘Passing Places’]

and the collection finishes on a note of celebration where two daughters play under the abstracted view of their mother, “shins swiped with pollen” [‘Lavender Gardens’].

This is an imaginative and big-hearted debut and I’ll look forward to reading her next book with great curiosity. I hope that the next collection will have fewer typos and errors in punctuation, though – these can really distract the reader from the power and sparkle of the writing.

Pippa Little

“our gift to the moon reflected back to us”

Earthshine, Mimi Khalvati, Smith/Doorstop, £5
reviewed by Emma Lee

Earthshine takes its title from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch which is reproduced on the cover. It refers to the way the moon’s landscape remains lit when the sun sets on the earth-facing side of the moon and the sun’s light is reflected on to the moon from earth giving the moon a crescent-shaped glow. Mimi Khalvati explains it more poetically in the title poem:

there, where we looked pointing, like an Oriental illustration
of Arabian Nights, lay the old moon in the new moon’s arms:

earthshine on the moon’s night side, on the moon’s dark limb,
earthlight, our light, our gift to the moon reflected back to us

and the duty we owe our elders as the Romans owed their gods
– duties they called pietàs, we call pity – shone in the moon’s pietà.

Each poem in the pamphlet is written in long line couplets. This gives spaces for Mimi Khalvati to start with an observation and expansively list associations and explore ideas radiating from the original observation. There is an elegiac tone but not a maudlin one. Perhaps because the poems feature small animals rather than people and use the weather as a metaphor for the mood of the narrator. In ‘Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur’

little living furry torch, eyes two headlamp luminaries, front
a bib of chamois, tip to tail – and mostly tail – barely as long

as the line I write in, despite illegal logging, slash and burn,
would survive longer than many folk, especially in captivity.

Only the barn owl, goshawk, to watch for in the dark – raptors
with their own big beauty. But Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur

is caught in the act – a chameleon clasped in her hands,
a geisha lowering her fan; the smallest primate on our planet.

The tone is gentle and playful. Personally I don’t like attempts to humanise animals so the use of “hands” rather than claws jarred for me. However, the “geisha lowering her fan” image is appropriate here as an animal who looks like a cute, long-tailed small ball of fur is revealed as a hunter, just as a geisha’s role as ornamental escort conceals darker desires. It gives the poem an undertow that stops it being just observation.

It’s the final poem, ‘Tears,’ that explains the purpose of the pamphlet: Mimi Khalvati’s mother’s death and its aftermath,

But in the weeks that followed, tears dried up

and world took up its stick and walked blindly
through the riverbeds. Had they been floodplains,

had there been no dams to render them obsolete,
nilometers would have measured the overflow

from faraway monsoons on stairs, pillars, wells.
Too high and there’d be famine, too low, the same.

I measured distances by her. My mother my compass,
My almanac and sundial, drawing me arcs in space.

Tellingly it’s the only sentimental poem in the collection. The others, with their focus firmly in the natural world, hint and suggest that nature became a means to heal grief.

Emma Lee

“playfulness and love of lexical esoterica”

Gathering Evidence, Caoilinn Hughes, Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

While reading Gathering Evidence I was reminded of something once said about modernism, that one of its aesthetic goals was to ‘delay the process of comprehension’ in a given poem. It may have been Bakhtin who said this, but don’t hold me to it if I’m wrong. These are not lyrical poems that offer up their meanings easily, but questing thought-processes that work on the interstice between perhaps an older bardic form of poetry and scientific advancement and discovery.

Poets since Wordsworth at least have been doing this, but Hughes’ work reminded me most of Veronica Forrest Thomson for its playfulness and love of lexical esoterica and Hugh MacDiarmid, particularly in his long poem In Memoriam James Joyce where we have to read through passages of flatness or scientific dryness to make the moments of insight or poetic observation all the more worth savouring. For instance in ‘Looting Roses’ an old woman’s face is ‘like a library shelf / (all dormant romance and discoloration)’. Also in ‘The Moon Should Be Turned’ Hughes describes cancerous cells in a political light and this reminds me closely of MacDiarmid’s ‘Ex-Parte Statement on the Topic of Cancer’.

While I’m trying to compare Hughes’ work to others, this is difficult in itself, because I get the impression she is wryly dissatisfied with the ways in which people respond to the modern world and try to live in it. In ‘Snake Creeps Through the Grass’ the speaker listens to a tramp in the park complain about kids who stole his hat, while nearby people do Tai Chi, and there is a great sense of inadequacy in ‘new age’ ways of dealing with things:

I don’t point out that the Tai Chis did nothing to intervene;
that their ‘cloud hands’ seemed to wave the thief off lovingly.

Also, in ‘This Is What Makes It Go Bang’, a poem which reads like a set of instructions for making bullets and then extends the analogy to poems, we seem to be in war-time conditions, but this is only tacitly suggested:

Insert the decapping rod,
then tap the top to rid spent primer.
You will need a soft-faced mallet,
if you can acquire one.

I feel that Hughes’ poems do read in a highly topical light for their passionate engagement with the past and I admire how they mix heritage, history and the present so winningly and wittily at times:

I imagine the counties to be like dusty library copies of Beowulf;
spines cracked to smithereens with no one to commiserate
since all the kids who have to read Seamus Heaney translations
on their Kindles, which are not as good for making fires as they sound.

Being a sufferer myself, one of the poems which struck me most here was ‘Cynophobia’ and this poem, like others in the collection, hints at a much darker, more direful end of human experience. The evidence Hughes seems to be gathering is not unlike that of Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, the foxing and markers of experience, but these are all Hughes’ own:

It started when my mother dropped me off at driveway’s end in a rush.
Birthday candles blinked from a distant window: someone else’s wish took                                                                                                        flight.
It started then, between a black Labrador, and a locked door: the                                                                                    extinguished lights.

Bill Manhire describes Hughes as an ‘alchemist’, yet I am always suspicious of these terms that seek to mysticise the job of the poet. By ‘alchemist’ I take to mean she can transfer the base-metal of some rather heavy or clunky lines (such as in ‘Pacific Rim’) into moments of real transformative power, and the collection does this, not always (for instance the villanelle ‘We Are Experiencing Delay’ seems contrived), but enough to convince the reader with the rich and varied evidence in front of them.

Richie McCaffery

“a rough draft of a man waiting to be rewritten…”

Guff, Brendan Kennelly, Bloodaxe, £9.95
reviewed by Jim Murdoch
kennelly guff
Brendan Kennelly’s Guff is, according to the blurb, “both mouthpiece and mouthed off, Devil’s advocate and self-critic, everyman and every writer consumed by self-doubt and self-questioning.” He takes his place in the queue behind Leopold Bloom, Belacqua Shuah and Dan Milligan, his Irishness central to his character. Brendan Kennelly, one of Ireland’s most distinguished and best loved poets, is in his seventies now though you could be fooled reading this. Guff is described as “a poem” but it feels like a collection, albeit a higgledy-piggledy one.

Guff’s “afraid of answers/ but the questions won’t stop.” He reads a book but then the book reads him. He “works with rhythms” but “[t]he rhythms play with old Guff.” He “writes in his notebook” but “[t]he notebook says nothing, just/ hoards the words.”

It must be added, though, that Guff
never strays far from words
which are his way of seeing
and saying what is and what is not.

[from ‘Teeshirt’]

“The extent of his not knowing/ hammers Guff now and then.” “Words are bullets. Guff is a target.”

The word is the world
without the L
without the hell.

[from ‘Guff hopes’]

In the beginning was the word.
We learned to use it, abuse it,
till it cried for mercy.

[from ‘Rescue’]

Guff’s a writer who speaks his mind. “A writer may get on well … with other people. He rarely gets on well/ with himself.” Guff is “a rough draft of a man/ waiting to be rewritten.” Guff has something to say about everything: religion, nationalism, sex, love, history, seagulls and takes 145 pages to get his 159 little rants out of his system; some as short as a couple of lines but none drag on. Guff is nothing if not concise in his verbosity.

Guff comes near to choking at times
not just with fishbones and chickenbones
certain words do the trick

[from ‘the trick’]

Impossible to do justice to in 500 words, Guff’s a biting response to modern life. A writer crawls inside himself—Kennelly describes this as a cave which made me think of a Beckettian skullscape—and shouts at the world from within. With no discernible narrative it took me time to get into but there are recurrent themes. I’ve chosen to focus on his obsession with language and its limits. The poem’s breadth, however, is striking and often flippantly profound: “After fifty years of breathing in this world/ why wouldn’t your breath be foul?” An easy book to get lost in. Not an easy one to let go of, even when you’ve put it down:

Are emptiness and appetite the same thing?
Is everyone eating everyone else?
Call it a state of rest, feel the earth’s pulse

throbbing music for the night
advancing across the fields, down roads
that are a map of appetite.

Guff turns, walks, sits, hears cries
dropping like crumbs
into his rich, abysmal emptiness.
The oldest friend he has.

[from ‘Oldest friend’]

No excerpts online but this link to Bloodaxe’s page is informative.

Jim Murdoch