Category Archives: English Poetry

“how poets and poetry can matter”

Knot, John Greening, £8.00, Worple Press
reviewed by Pippa Little

Knot1Knot certainly fits its title. If you like intertextuality you will relish its many voices and interwoven twists and turns – but you will need some background knowledge of Ben Jonson’s milieu and contemporaries or at least a reference book or Google nearby.

‘The fruit of a month spent at Hawthornden Castle’ – a writers’ retreat near Edinburgh once home to William Drummond and visited by his good friend Ben Jonson in 1618 – the book is divided into two sections: the first is structured to evoke a 17th century knot garden design and involves sonnets, verse letters, an allegorical walk and the poet’s notes on life in the retreat. The second is a modern masque performed by fellow writers in the castle during John Greening’s stay.

There is much to enjoy: a fine control of language, pithy wit, a strong historical sense. Greening is also confident and ambitious in his choices of form: as Greening’s notes state, the masque genre ‘has disappeared completely – unsurprisingly, since masques were expensive, amateur dramatic indulgences for the nobility’ and he is honest enough to admit that writing one now risks parody. He pulls it off: the theme of time allows him some moving contemplation.

I prefer the first section, however. The opening sonnet to M.W. (the poet Mary Wroth, Ben Jonson’s friend) is very pleasing and I also enjoyed the other sonnets to Donne, Marlowe, Campion, Spenser – all with their titles mere bare initials so that a bit of knowledge or research effort is required on the reader’s part. I had never heard of George Gascoigne, the soldier poet who began the whole ‘Virgin Goddess’ adoration of Queen Elizabeth in verse (and who, like Shakespeare, Ralegh and Sidney, is given his name in full in the title and in capitals). I couldn’t make out who S.D. or M.D. were. It feels as if you need to be ‘classically educated’, as Jonson was, to comprehend this sequence in its full complexity.

The poet’s own walk around the Hawthornden environs and its mirroring of Ben Jonson’s longer one (from London to Scotland) form a counterpoint to each other. Ben Jonson searches for new shoes amid the satanic mills of ‘Darnton’ and its rail track to Stockton, realising that these mines, dams and ‘priapic chimneys’ were partly an England ‘he had helped to build not only by laying brick upon brick, but in rallying the ruling classes with masque and song.’ The contemporary poet, as with Ben Jonson well away from his comfort zone, puzzles among charity cyclists and internet cafes.

I particularly like Jonson’s seeing “Nothing of his own” …”except a Shakespeare. Of course a Shakespeare”, in a bookshop, which neatly and wittily encapsulates their rivalry and then the time-slip to “There were, however, volumes by another Johnson: a dictionary, it would appear.”

Knot celebrates a meeting of minds, that sense of common ground between writers, whether in a century of masques or today, in a retreat for writers from all over the world. It questions how poets and poetry can matter and make a difference.

Pippa Little

“listen as the world hums quietly/ to itself”

The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, Sue Hubbard, £12.99, Salt
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

9781907773396frcvr.inddSue Hubbard‘s not a painter although I suspect she might quite like to be; poetry’s a poor second to most visual art. My initial response, after scanning an excerpt of this collection, was, “I’m not a great lover of nature poetry (I’m frankly not sure what’s new to be said on the subject) but let’s see if she can win me over.”

In an article Hubbard writes:

“Today landscape painting is viewed as marginal, peripheral to the philosophical and conceptual concerns of contemporary art. Traditionalists see it as upholding a nostalgic vision of timeless values, whilst for most modernists the landscape is essentially urban, tainted and dysfunctional.”

The same could be said about landscape poems. In Hubbard’s poetry Nature’s role is to provide a giant metaphor for the human condition: trees aren’t lonely, winds don’t drink, stars might no longer be visible but they’re not hiding. Long (admittedly eloquent) descriptive passages set the scene/tone and then the human observer appears to add a touch of profundity or pathos. “What do things know?” Hubbard asks in the opening poem followed by “What do they tell us?” in the second. In the third we find her walking through a wood “in search of a poem”:

I try to write a line of colour,

but words are a string of biro scrawls
Without air or light or hue,

[White Canvas]

I know exactly where’s she’s coming from. I, too, once wandered aimlessly seeking inspiration and have the bad poetry to prove it. She writes:

Open your heart like a door
and listen as the world hums quietly
to itself

[Love in Whitstable]

I did try but evidently was looking in all the wrong places.

Nature’s huge and we’re so small. This is evidenced in ‘riverrun’ which devotes a whole page to setting before the observer holds her “breath/ and listens to the wood/ waiting for something to happen”; a tiny diamond in an overpowering setting.

The book is divided into three parts:

‘A Meaningful Speech’ could’ve come out as a chapbook in its own right. There’s interesting stuff here but the poems don’t cohere as well as the second and third sections. There are some good pieces though like ‘Keeping Hens’ and ‘Naked Portrait, 1972–3’.

‘Over the Rainbow’ comprises ekphrastic poems responding to the suicide paintings of Rachel Howard. Minus the accompanying art, the poems inevitably feel like they’re missing something. Shame too there’s only nine; this would’ve been a nice chapbook in its own right.

‘The Idea of Islands’ has already been published separately accompanied by paintings by Donald Teskey and so also suffers a little from the estrangement.

“…writing a poem, as for the visual artist drawing from life, is a ‘process’, a ‘reaching towards’ something that is largely unknown,” writes Hubbard. That may be the case but it can’t stay unknown. It becomes known during the reading. I wasn’t entirely won over by these poems—my fault undoubtedly—but I can see why others might be.

Jim Murdoch

“leaving meaning on the banks”

Evenlode by Charles Bennett (Oversteps Books, £8)
reviewed by Russell Jones
Messages of Change[1]

“… By showing me what
I could never really know, it made me a scholar.” [‘Tortoise’]

Bennett’s Evenlode is primarily a collection of nature (or herbalist) poems with a near-mystical feel. A great many of its poems maintain the energy of a lazy river, picking up stark images that drop into its current en route. The amalgamation produces a sense of spellbinding, an almost-hypnotic quality in which the reader might lose themselves in the aural potency of Bennett’s language, leaving meaning on the banks, like lovers’ strewn clothes, for us to collect later on. All well and good! Take, for example, Bennett’s opening lines to the poem, ‘Tansy’:

If I left a trail of tansy –
pungent plebs of yellow calyx-stubs
in a trickle of sticky glimmers

Here, Bennett’s opening takes advantage of the alliterative ‘t’ (“If I left a trail of tansy”) and then the repeated ‘p’ of “pungent plebs” to build a sense of pace and rhythm, only for it to become “stub[bed]” and “sticky” as the trochaic pattern breaks down. This is a somewhat technical way of suggesting that the sound of his language often assists the meaning of the poem itself. And yet concrete meaning is something that is frequently avoided in Evenlode; indeed the ambiguity of language and the enigmatic nature of (mis)understanding are key focuses of this collection, a tension which often works but sometimes unravels in its own attempts at clarity.

The most affective and effective poems of Evenlode are those that bask in the pleasure of enigma, an attempt to “show … me what / I could never really know” through what is unsaid or purposefully missed out. It is this invigorating effect of ambiguity, the reader’s interpretation brought about through a poem’s indistinction, that fizzes in the ear and lingers on the mind:

And here in the cup of your hands
is a nest for rain        for a bird
of water to open its split wings

Here is a space where a song
might grow like a leaf        could fly
down summer to the fruit

[from ‘Birds Nesting in Dunsfold Orchard’]

We are drawn to fill in those white spaces, to construct the image in our own understanding of the world, in the “cup of your hands”, in the “space where a song / might grow”.

Those poems which are less successful unwittingly undo this ‘personalisation’ by unnecessary references and a predilection towards absolutes. ‘When Beowulf Flew’, for example, lengthily reminds the reader that it is referring to “the night of October 23rd 1731, when the library of medieval manuscripts owned by Sir Robert Cotton caught fire”. Meanwhile, several poems make allusions to other texts (sometimes with extensive footnotes), detracting from their emotional resonance by insisting on an academic understanding that potentially undermines the value of the reader’s perception.

Even so, Evenlode surprised me; the quality of Bennett’s ear is undeniable and transfers excellently to the page, whilst a subtle appreciation for visual experiment adds another layer for readers to swim through and enjoy at their leisure.

Russell Jones

“Recommended Retail Prices, art / with a capital R”

INSTANT-fLEX 718, Heather Phillipson, Bloodaxe, £8.95
reviewed by Dave Coates

Heather Phillipson is well-regarded as a conceptual artist and, while her brash primary colours employed there are engaging and enthusiastic, this approach doesn’t translate well to the page in her debut collection, INSTANT-fLEX 718. The book suffers primarily from a paucity of emotional engagement, secondarily from the author’s impulse to drop names/big words in place of a poem’s motivating concept. For example, ‘Relational Epistemology,’ which begins:

‘It’s whatever you want it to be,’ said my father
after he bisected My Little Pony and used her in a sculpture.
At bedtime he read me Kafka’s short fiction.

After mentioning Kafka, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, little is made of their presence. They appear as decoration and leave little impression on the poem’s substance. A self-consciously esoteric story about a young girl trying to be normal in an excessively intellectual home, it is too hung up on its own cleverness to include the reader.

The book is also slightly problematic when it encounters the poet’s body, in poems like ‘German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London’, ‘Although You Do Not Know Me, My Name is Patricia’ and ‘Horse Jacuzzi’. In all cases the female body is presented straight-facedly as desirable object; although not necessarily harmful in isolation, in context with our culture at large it’s unedifying to see this harmful trope go so unchallenged. A cover blurbs reads, “[HP’s] poems fuse subterranean erotic landscapes with the complex pleasures of thought”; there are far more complex pleasures of thought found in Sharon Olds’ and Sinead Morrissey’s most recent books, and means of discussing sex, sexuality and women’s bodies without such simple objectification.

The book occasionally comes close to genuine sentimental power before falling foul of its worst instincts. In ‘The Baby [hereafter referred to as ‘The Baby’] hereby contracts with The Mother [hereafter referred to as ‘The Mother’] –’, Phillipson describes how “Time will be diced into a number of segments. Now/ it is one thousand four hundred and forty minutes per day,// The Baby will look peppier every second,/ reminding The Mother of mortal human frailty.” The conceit and execution are excellent; how often do we reprimand ourselves for feeling contractually obliged to those we love most? But in the closing stanzas the poet indulges a tendency for cuteness with a six-line list of things The Baby will get used to, like “rhinoplasty, ritual polygamy, Recommended Retail Prices, art/ with a capital R”, which hamstrings the poem’s interior strength.

INSTANT-fLEX 718 relies too heavily on the reader necessarily caring about its vignettes of modern, solitary city life; one of the book’s shortcomings is a failure to translate the passionate episodes from the poet’s experience into something emotionally recognisable. To put it bluntly, sometimes it is difficult to tell exactly what Phillipson wants to convey. Had the poet taken more care in crafting the dramatic core of these poems and less on their idiosyncratic exteriors, this would have been a far stronger collection.

Dave Coates