Monthly Archives: December 2014

“The caged sea flows on”

Ghost Pot, John Wedgwood Clarke, Valley Press, £8.99
reviewed by Fiona Moore

ghost pot clarke

The pot of the title poem, first in the book, is a lobster pot whose loss in the sea causes an destructive chain reaction: “The bait will make bait/ of its catch”.

                              The caged sea
flows on as they eat from answer
to question, unpacking their hunger,
one to another, until up it comes, a by-catch,
crammed to the throat with bony shields.

The sonnet’s as thickly woven as the gruesome trap and draws energy from tight syntax, half rhymes half-heard through enjambment, and chewy, unLatinate words. The next seven poems are sonnets too, sharing these characteristics and the North Yorkshire coastal theme: a sequence, though each does something different. If ‘Ghost Pot’ presents a startling image, ‘Limpet’ is a conceit or metaphor of sorts, and other poems range from straight description or family outing to mood poem, as in ‘Black Dog Whelk Feeds on a Barnacle’:

Black Dog Whelk listens through itself
and every move I fail to make,
aches and drills and knows it’s only time
before it thins the dark, a stony light
about to break between table, cup and tap.

Individual poems don’t take an obvious course either – it’s rare to have a sense of where one might go. The jaw-aching language bounces from one set of consonants to the next, barely a human construct but as tangible as the landscapes and objects it describes. Entry to a poem is often slant so that the reader is interestingly disoriented… and then disoriented again when one (e.g. ‘Bait Shed’; the titles are a help) starts with a straightforward description. The oddity of ‘Black Nab’ is typical:

Someone burnt the telephone directory,
cast it in stone: Black Nab is a stub
of illegible numbers and lost addresses.

The stubby rhyme of -ab, -ub and -umb is offset by -phone and stone, and tele-, illegi- and –esses. Humour lurks in such images – a tent in ‘Wild Camping’ is like a mermaid’s purse, a crab in ‘Sandside’ “plays arpeggios on the mud piano,/ his touch like someone picking stitches”. Quoted out of context these might seem arch, but their accuracy and the terse, dense language prevent that. A couple of conceit poems do risk archness, including ‘Kettleness’ whose nursery-rhyme beginning, “I had a little egg timer, nothing would it bear” somehow jars among the ruggedness.

The coast is presented as both timeless and derelict. The environmental impact of “everlasting plastics”, “a tombstone fish box” or the ghost pot itself is rarely that explicit, rather in the background as a shared assumption between writer and reader. People and their moods become an extension of landscape: in ‘Robin Hood’s Bay’, children have “ribs, like hidden gills, slippery under skin”. There’s occasional human comedy, e.g. in ‘Wild Camping’:

He wakes inside, a fading print of himself.
He’s forgotten how to look at her
and looks to make sure she’s there.
But she’s gone, zipping him in,
too hot, shivering him away
in a skitter of cold stones down her spine

Categories in Ghost Pot are as unpredictable as the rest: things that are animal /vegetable /mineral /metaphysical or man-made /natural get described in terms of each other, their boundaries (and those of the senses) surreally mixed up. ‘Marsh Marigold’ begins:

I listened in to light
and heard its yellow hum:
a tuning fork just struck
and planted on my temple.

It was cold and clear as water
dripping from a glacier,
poised as a hare
a blink away from woods.

Nothing could follow on,
not I, not tomorrow nor
next spring. It paused the air
and screwed it tight as stone.

These simple, short verses allow multiple images to stand clear. Anyone reading many denser poems in one sitting might find that the successions of images start to cancel each other out… but who except a reviewer would do that?

Most poems are underlain by iambic pentameter, sometimes faint, other times nearer the surface as in the Black Dog Whelk poem quoted above; and not necessarily going with the line breaks which tend to be spot on. Similarly end rhyme, often half rhyme, comes and goes, not in expected patterns, supplemented by internal rhyme.

The book is beautifully designed and produced, its dimensions making it feel more like a (fat) pamphlet than the full collection it is: like the poems, shortish and packed full of stuff often as strange as the ghost pot, a tribute to the coastscape they celebrate.

Fiona Moore

“death, that tune that keeps on playing in the background”

Cocktails from the Ceiling, Aoife Mannix, tall-lighthouse, £8
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

cocktails from the celing mannix

In a 2012 interview Aoife talks about what poetry is to her:

Poetry for me is somewhere between music and prose. It’s a way of expressing how you experience the world. It can be both intensely personal and intensely political. I think in contemporary society people still turn to poetry to mark the most significant occasions in life such as weddings and funerals. Poetry is a compact and powerful means of revealing our inner most thoughts and feelings.

In Cocktails from the Ceiling we see some of both. The political appears in pieces like ‘The Memory of Water’ talking about the Troubles:

They say water remembers
no matter how diluted, a drop
of blood dissolving in a glass of whisky.

or ‘The Eye of the Needle’, dedicated to Pussy Riot:

I bet when Jesus went into the temple
and started knocking over stalls,
there were those who said this is just
some punk from Bethlehem pulling a PR stunt,

The personal is in poems like ‘Singing’:

You always knew how to name things,
even death, that tune that keeps on
playing in the background.

and ‘Message In A Bottle’:

The nurse said they can still hear you even
from a great distance, even when they are
floating in air and the body is empty.

Someone’s died. Someone who spent time in palliative care. Her Gran, I suspect, who used to serve her “egg sandwiches/ with white wine” and told her “stories of rebellion and theatrical drama”. Hard to be sure but loss and grief hover over this collection. Aoife ends the poem ‘Map Reading’ with the line “time has a very poor sense of direction” and in ‘Going Back’ she talks of a “landscape … buried inside us”. This collection feels like a memoir, whether it is autobiographical or not. I imagine when Aoife leafs through this book it may feel like a map of her life: playing in the church on rainy Sunday afternoons, visiting Dublin, being grilled by a security guard at Stansted, “[t]he clouds over Waterloo Bridge”, sitting in the hospice, a trip to Glasgow, “on the road to God knows where”.

Organising any collection is difficult, trying to plan a route through poems written years apart. I’m sure the order of this collection makes perfect sense to Aoife. I can see there’s a story being told here but I struggled with it and it took me weeks to produce this review. The poems aren’t hard. There’s the odd overtly ‘poetic’ bit—”ghosts/ of butterflies newly born”—which some will scratch their heads at but most of the poetry here’s accessible and personable and certainly anyone who’s lost someone—be it a baby or a grandparent—will be touched by many of these pieces. Little humour here though; it’s not that kind of book. No idea what the title’s all about. It’s a line from a poem but not the one I would’ve picked.

Jim Murdoch