Monthly Archives: June 2014

“journeys have their special relativities…”

Pursued by Well-being, Mark Russell, tall-lighthouse, £5.00
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

mark russell pursued
The poems in this slim pamphlet are set in places as far-flung as the Jewish quarter in Prague, Addis Ababa, Rome and some bus stop on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. “Journeys,” Mark writes, “have their special// relativities./ Some end in relief/ others in catastrophe.” Whatever we’ve just ended or wherever we end up the one thing we all have to do, however, is cope, so if what Williams said is true and poems are machines then these are all coping mechanisms. Personally I would’ve named this collection after its final poem, ‘One Way Ticket Round the World’, and would have moved it to the start for its opening sound advice:

All you need is an umbrella—
                 because you must visit Scotland;

It isn’t always chucking it down in Scotland; sometimes it just drizzles. In fact it’s a clear night on the M74 in the poem of the same title although the narrator still winds up recalling a rainy night from his past.

To remember a journey
it must have more
than uneaten sausage rolls

under the seat,
flames from the boot,
ice on the tyres.

The poet makes his entrance in the opening poem:

I wait in the wings upstage left,
breathe in through the nose,
out through the mouth, cluck
consonants, throw forth some vowels.

Mark has his homemade bag full of tricks: puns and similes, alliterations, metaphors and a layer of wry, and occasionally quite dark, humour:


As an act of love
I promise to have
A crimson tattoo
Of little red hearts
In the softened wheals
Your teeth left behind.

There’s nothing here we’ve not seen before. What we’re made to do though is look again, as in the title poem:

It’s like seeing sheep in the high street,
or molten gold hanging from the trees.

Or it might be your dad dropping “his drawers/ in Oils and Dressings at Tesco” or some old codger swatting “the rain as it hits the glass” on the bus. Come again?

Coping is a journey, moving from one state to another. Sometimes the answer is to physically relocate and Mark does seem to have lived a peripatetic life; other times it’s a shift in perspective that’s needed. There’s an inevitable looking back here although I expect Mark tossed his rose-tinted spectacles out some car window years ago: his Proustian madeleines are all “flat and tasteless”. He remembers scramblers, rooms, his mate’s sister who precipitated his first erection, the woods near his house, although at the time he

…did not see the black thoughts—
how they were sown, sprouted roots,
harrowed the wild woodland playground
to this place of unadorned silence.

It took me a while to get into this chapbook. Couldn’t quite make a connection. But it grew on me. Some poems felt voyeuristic and left me with that uncomfortable awkward feeling Larkin does so well; not a criticism. My favourites were the Glasgow-based because I’ve been there. Minor issue: the print was a wee bit small for me.

Jim Murdoch

“History is the first border I have to cross”

Remnants of Another Age, Nikola Madzirov, Bloodaxe, £9.95. , translated from the Macedonian by Peggy & Graham Reid, Magdalena Horvat & Adam Reed
reviewed by Fiona Moore

I haven’t belonged to anyone for ages
like a coin fallen from the edge of an old icon.
I am scattered among the strict inheritances and vows
behind the blinds of drawn destinies.
History is the first border I have to cross

These are the first few lines of ‘Revealing’. The bardic, dream-like voice and disembodied perspective are typical. So is the way the poem seems to float from one image to the next. There might be eight here, in 16 lines (though any demarcation is subjective), often original to a British ear – the poem ends:

only childhood is like honey
that never lets anything leave a trace in it.

Certain images recur throughout the book and acquire symbolic weight. Some seem to bring folklore with them – such as feathers, fishermen, waves – which can produce a Chagall-like effect, including when they are twisted in new directions: “a rare bird / from the other side of a banknote” (‘Flying’). Satellites, phone boxes, diggers, pilotless aircraft, or a lover’s hair in the waste-paper basket, blend in. Each poem unfolds with its own combination of images; the effect is kaleidoscopic, or like lifting the corners of a paper fortune-teller. Language, imagery and the underlying thought and themes are all striking enough to draw the reader further and further in, without any sense of monotony or excess.

Houses feature throughout, though not representing home and security. They can be transitory, as in ‘The Shadow of the World passes over my Heart’:

With hands parted and fingers joined
I indicate a roof.

The speakers of the poems often seem to be in transit too, or in flight; and many houses are in ruins. (Some passages remind me of Calvino’s Invisible Cities.) Macedonia itself may have escaped the conflict that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s; but Madzirov comes from a family of refugees from earlier Balkan conflicts. According to Carolyn Forché’s helpful introduction, his name comes from a word meaning ‘people without a home’. In ‘Home’,

I lived at the edge of the town
like a street lamp whose light bulb
no one ever replaces.
Cobwebs held the walls together,
and sweat our clasped hands.
I hid my teddy bear
in holes in crudely built stone walls
saving him from dreams.

The manuscript of this poem, which I remember Madzirov reading at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival last November, is reproduced in a frontispiece. Remnants of Another Age is bilingual throughout – anyone who can read Cyrillic script and understands a Slav language will be able to get something out of the Macedonian text opposite its English version. The quartet of translators seem to have kept close to the original, and the tone and style of the translations is uniform. Madzirov writes (so far as I can tell) in free verse, with what appears to be fairly straightforward lineation, rarely heavily enjambed. His response to conflict and displacement is not fractured but a lyrical bringing-together of disparate elements.

The poems cross history’s border with ease – as did the events of the break-up of Yugoslavia. They feel timeless and, mostly, placeless; the symbols are all the place that is needed. When reading I find it hard not to have Bosnia, Kosovo etc constantly in mind, but also Syria and the Congo. But anyone who has visited Skopje may at once understand that ‘The Hands of the Clock’ refers to the earthquake that devastated Skopje in 1963; the station clock still stands at the fatal moment.

Try to be born
like the big hand after midnight
and the seconds will overtake you at once.

Madzirov clearly owes a debt to East European forerunners such as Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub or Wiesława Szymborska, though his often elegiac tone is very different; he can be epigrammatic and surreal but is always diffuse, not sharp or satirical. The blurb says he’s been compared to Tomas Tranströmer, which works – they both combine precision with a sort of bardic distance. Remnants of Another Age belongs in such company. This is a book that will last.

Fiona Moore

“approach quiet by degrees”

Yellow & Blue, Thomas A. Clark, Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Pippa Little

yellow and blue

Reading Yellow & Blue is a cool, slow, cumulative experience. Concise, epigrammatic, the poems inscribe themselves, two or three to each bare page. All in lower case, unpunctuated, untitled, unpeopled, they create an imaginative terrain at once of great clarity and great distance. Coming new to Thomas A. Clark’s work I was struck by its echoes of Basho’s journeying through wild landscape and his succinctly-expressed, impressionistic empathy with nature. On researching, I found Clark’s roots interconnect with the ‘land art’ of Ian Hamilton Finlay and his son Alec Finlay, on whom Basho has been a profound influence. He has also been associated with Simon Cutts (whose projects in landscape include a poem-engraved glass bridge and ‘Aeolean Neon’, words by John Clare illuminated in a small stone barn by wind turbine) and with artist/poet Johnathan Williams, whose Jargon Press published Bunting, Levertov, Niedecker, Zukofsky and Creeley. As editor of his own Moschatel Press Thomas A. Clark has also published poems by Cid Corman, a co-translator of Basho. So the interweaving of Objectivism, Minimalism, Black Mountain and art practice of Poetic Conceptualism form a dense canopy.

Even without the family trees, however, this volume stands tall. The lyric voice is tough, delicate, risk-taking:

seems full
until need
fills it


and often extremely beautiful:

at a tap
a cloud
of pollen
to drift
in a puff
of dust


It reads as a moving, tender eulogy to a world of natural things and creatures and to forces beyond language of light and time. The span of the poems goes beyond human life-cycles, swoops across aeons, swerves between enormity and minuteness of scale: stone forms and dissolves, blackbirds hatch and die. It’s a recognisably northern, Scottish environment, bleak and yet seductive with its pines, mountains, machair, thistles, burns, its “centuries of rain” (p.20), brim-full of animal, bird and insect life yet curiously empty. Nothing of the modern intrudes: Clark is no Paul Farley, unconcerned as he is by the ‘edgeland’ interfaces between urban and rural, the strange beauty of human-damaged spaces.

What comes through powerfully instead is the cold, spring water-like tone of the poems, so spare and pared-down they are deceptively slight yet strong as cobwebs and as meticulously crafted. Whether you choose to ‘dip in’ to this collection or read it through as a whole, it will take you to a quiet, meditative place where the mind is let free to enjoy the pure music of the poems and emerge deeply satisfied and replenished.

Pippa Little