Monthly Archives: August 2014

“the times awry and nature out of it”

Sister Invention, Judith Kazantzis, Smokestack, £8.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

Sister Invention cover 10-2013 FINAL_Layout 1

Sister Invention is Judith Kazantzis’s first major collection for a decade and her subjects include death, both personal and via reported news, the reconfiguration of Greek myths from a feminist perspective, and the birth of a grandchild: all with a contemporary feel. Writing from the perspective of the overlooked wife of a historically famous figure is not a new idea and the success of such a poem relies on credibility: how likely is the voice in the poem that of the wife? Judith Kazantzis gives a voice to Mrs William Blake in ‘Mrs Blake’s Poe

Long long ago
the lion lay down with me
under the palm tree in the garden

His sturdy, meaty lamb,
I pulled the beauty
like stringy old beans out of his sore throat
line by line
There now, like – a red flannel!

He laughed at me
flung the flannel dramatically
into the lavender
I discreetly skipped out of the way
as it were, into the shady fold
of the page

Not only is the scenario and language realistic but the poet also resists giving Mrs Blake a modern sensibility. Gardens are useful metaphors and their landscapes can reflect the inner emotional landscape of the narrator. This is used to good effect in ‘Dick Cheyney’s Garden’, a sequence where the narrator discusses events, political and personal decisions away from the pressures of the White House and heated debates of The Senate. In Part III ‘Walking the long lawns’, Dick Cheyney muses on the emblematic attack on 9/11:

I switch on. Toy puffs blow Meccano planes
into Lego buildings, like the Spitfires
my little brothers used to circle
like wasps over the red carpet, bang, bang.
You couldn’t wring from the box more
than the voice knew, that sequence all day,
as modern transport scored its third,
and for all time, we were told, assured
legislated to believe: The world intuned,
the times awry
                           and nature out of it.

The poem captures the sense of disbelief of seeing a game most children play a variation of: crashing a toy plane into a toy building enacted on an adult, real scale. It’s accompanied by the modern need to know more: to have the answers after a few taps into a search engine and the frustration that the TV can only broadcast to, not interact with, its audience. The final line quoted doesn’t just underline the unnatural act but is also a reminder that Cheyney in is his garden, and the garden does more than act as a backdrop. The long sentences mirror the narrator’s thinking: small jumps from one point to the next. This politician doesn’t have grand ideas or big answers but reflects and reacts. Judith Kazantzis doesn’t just stop at 9/11 but continues into contemporary wars in Afghanistan and Syria. ‘The bombed woman’ could be any women caught up in war:

All the times the screaming head,
the bombed woman,
sees the planes about to
sees her town, her children, herself.
All those times
inside this skull
out through this mouth
sorrow’s grinding scream
protrudes its lava

The description is visual and also non-judgmental. Her focus is on the victims not the perpetrators. Judith Kazantzis records and assesses with compassion. She doesn’t write the victims’ response for them or resort to cliché. There’s no space for sentimentality here.

Sister Invention is large in scope but successfully woven together with no frayed edges. Judith Kazantzis’s tone varies from contemporary detail to lyricism. Her poems reward re-reading and it’s a book to dip into frequently.

Emma Lee

“now I am becoming my own tree”

The Moon Before Morning, W. S. Merwin, Bloodaxe 2014, £12-00
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

9 x 6in wraparound 128pp
I could waste a lot of words reiterating how important and distinguished an American poet Merwin is, but instead will let his reputation speak for itself. This latest collection, The Moon Before Morning, contains some of the most luminous poems I’ve read for a while, but I feel, at four sections, this collection is over-long. Sections II and III contain the kernel of the collection, with some of the most memorable poems lodged here. Section I concerns poems of gardens, looking out of windows, ‘fronds’ in nearly every poem – these mark time and its passing. These poems are acts of intense scrutiny of the outside world, but from the stance of an old man pottering around his garden. As good as these are, I’d say this section could have been weeded down to a few poems which mark the poet’s old age and his present position in the world. That said, ‘Footholds’ speaks most powerfully about the evanescence of human actions and activities in the landscape:

Where I dug the logs into the rise
to make the steps along the valley
I forget how many years ago
their wood has dissolved completely now
yet I set my feet down in the same
places I did when the steps were there
Father and Mother friend upon friend
what I remember of them now
footholds on the slope
in the silent valley this morning

In Section II Merwin moves into more biographical and narrative modes, often delving into his childhood. In ‘Green Fence’, there is a fence built by the speaker’s father to protect the young son from the imagined baleful influences of the outside world. This fence, however, does not preserve anything but instead segregates and alienates the boy from people outside it. In similar terrain as ‘Footholds’ ‘Cancellation’ shows how all of the buildings which helped educate or form the boy who became the man are now demolished and yet:

(…) I still know
the way to it
down the avenue and across
and I carry with me the stories
weightless as shadows
of its cold walls

In ‘Relics’ we discover that before the speaker even knew the word ‘obsolete’ he loved the neglected, the derelict and decrepit, the broken-down, the rusty, and the spectral places brought to life in the poems quoted above. The recurring idea of the interstitial, nether world is most wittily explored in ‘Neither Here nor There’. Here, and in ‘Convenience’ Merwin casts a critical and penetrating eye over America’s love of soulless commercial spaces. ‘Convenience’ verges on the preachy for its itemisations of all that has been lost to erect concrete temples to our ‘convenience’, but ‘Neither Here nor There’ seems to perfectly distil the ethos of the airport:

An airport is nowhere
which is not something
generally noticed
by those inside it

yet some unnamed person in the past
deliberately planned it
to be there


you sit there in the smell
of what passes for food
breathing what is called air

Similarly in ‘The Latest Thing’ the songs of birds are forgotten in cities because the cities themselves are ‘made of absences’. In Section III we get a sense of a poet forming, of a boy growing up, tinged also with the closeness of poems which look back in retrospect on a life, such as ‘Wild Oats’ where the speaker is unrepentant:

I needed my mistakes
in their own order
to get me here


in my youth I believed in somewhere else
I put faith in travel
now I am becoming my own tree.

This sense of travelling far yet remaining rooted in place ties this section back to the first, and the final section explores most poignantly the prospect of getting older. Yet even here there is ample evidence to point towards a new lease of life, or another direction. In ‘Turning’ the speaker looks back on a life of rushing around, a hectic pace that did not allow him the chance to stop and touch others, and then:

this morning the Belgian shepherd dog
still young looking up and saying

Are you ready this time?

This does not sound like Les Murray’s ‘black dog’ of depression but a portent of taking control of one’s life through poetry. The four separate sections of this collection speak for different aspects and stages of Merwin’s life to create a sort of poetic bildungsroman, or to show the making of a poet, first in old age and then the journey to that age. Although I began this review by saying this collection could be shorter, the long and rich life it speaks for in such a singular way I can only admire.

Richie McCaffery

“sending the work outwards…”

Find an Angel and Pick a Fight, Peter McCarey, Molecular Press, 2013, £17.70
reviewed by Ira Lightman

mccarey find an angel
Readable and with a sort of bracing corrective seriousness on how to live, rather than how to be righteous, this collection of articles and reviews is finally indigestible, too pugnacious with too little revision, fathoming or empathising. McCarey is facile trashing writers like Antin and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. But there is a bringing together of fascinating abstract areas – translating poetry, music, maths. Ultimately, McCarey tells us these areas ought to relate. So we do our own relating, then help McCarey out with it? The computationally talented polyglot lacks sufficient intellection and overview but not smugness. His title comes from his own (not very good) poem quoted in the book, and its angel part is not really explained – though there are pleasing glances at faith ventilating a sometimes materialistic (“I can’t see what this means”) grumpiness. Self-belief improvises unrevised into unauthoritative prose of nevertheless lively style – good creative writing, in other words, without the glib sob of conventional prose and poetry.

McCarey resists the sentimental pull, and his take on Leonard and on colleagues like Riach is usefully prickly – although one warms more to Leonard and Riach than to McCarey.

His didactic paraphrasing at length and extensive footnoting is generous, sending the work outwards rather than to the specialist fraternity. The sensibility remains partial, picks fights. He freely says in places that he has just written the previous sentence, as if the essay were a terrific live activity – which is what my favourite of his poetry does (at, with paraphernalia of scientific thorough variety of vowel and consonant combinations and diaristic jumpy-sultry poems). He says that he doesn’t get things – the Walter Benjamin or Laura Riding essay he’s just alluded to – and one wonders why he doesn’t fetch in a good interpretation of them by others; or just give it more of a try?

There are nice short essays on Prynne, which look, without the hagiography of Prynne’s (creepily encouraged, paternalistic) circle, for the raw impact of the poems on a speculating poetry reader. There’s a good blast at Geoffrey Hill’s morbid self-advancement, tallying with my favourite rare 70s bitchy essay by John Ashbery about the English scene and the young Hill prowling Cambridge on the make.

McCarey for me is strongest on questioning the nostra of poetry translation. He is a useful critic to think with here. He may comment on an Edwin Morgan’s statement (that translation is getting at the under-ghost-text) only by obfuscating Morgan and nipping at his ankles. But he rises to points that show our monoglottism. Writers from other countries may not like us for patting fellow English-language speakers on the back for being also insular. Or crass. A quest for precision doesn’t fully dispel, however, what one feels is the strange pull on McCarey of the extrovert, improper and unchaste hinted in the “helps explain” of his nevertheless fascinating sentence:

“The foreign reader sees a poem shorn of the day-to-day, the ephemeral; its outline is clearer, its context and associations less so, its register and accent might not be caught. (Maybe this helps explain why the likes of Poe and Byron could mean more at times to the French and Germans than to native English speakers.)”

Ira Lightman