Tag Archives: Bloodaxe

“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

“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

“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

“contradictory pleasures of shock and sweetness”

New & Selected Potatoes, John Hegley, Bloodaxe 2013, £9.95
reviewed by Pippa Little

hegley potatoes
I have to admit a soft spot for John Hegley. Years ago he visited my eldest son’s primary school and got him hooked on poetry: now he’s a poet, editor, translator and advocate for writing and I’m sure it’s in part at least due to that enthusiastic encounter.

New & Selected Potatoes is full of delights and offers us the scenic route around Hegley’s world, from 1984 to his most recent work. Some of it is laugh-out-loud and he is a magician of titles (referring to the much-maligned “brother-in-law”, as in ‘His Heart’s In The Wrong Place, It Should Be In The Dustbin’) but there’s also a quiet, wry sadness which lingers in the mind after reading: the effect of going through this volume at one sitting is of sucking sherbert lemon with its contradictory pleasures of shock and sweetness.

There’s also a sense of sharing real time with Hegley’s voice in its conversational, seemingly random unfoldings, as if you were sitting together over a coffee. Yet that guilelessness is underpinned with an acute and astute feel for language and a razor-sharp intelligence.

I found the poems about his grandparents’ marriage very affecting: she the “blancmange”, he the “potato”, their split reverberating through the generations after them. Hegley’s English identity – retro, suburban, of Scouts huts, glasses, dogs, bungalows, the Beatles – is crossed with a fault-line of his part French inheritance, something he grapples with in his relationship with his father and also as an artist. ‘The Sound of Paint Drying’ is a prose poem describing his trip to Nice to paint the same scene his father did in 1931 and ‘Zen Dad’ begins:

When I asked my father why he’d stopped painting,
He told me, ‘You are my paintings now.’

The weight of being his father’s work of art, and at the same time being expected to carry on the artist role himself (one Christmas he’s presented with his father’s palette wrapped up as a gift) threads through the poems and adds a darker tinge to the theme of human failings and specifically his own. Yet there are lots of bright colours, too. I loved poems about glimpses and snippets of life with illuminating consequences (‘Glasgow Window’ for example, where a man seems to be waving to the poet as if they are old friends but on closer inspection proves to be window cleaning, a lovely sideways nod to Stevie Smith) and pleasures taken simply in language, as in ‘The Difference Between Dogs And Sheds’, quoted here entire:

It’s not a very good idea to give a dog
a coat
of creosote

Michael Horovitz, on the back of the book, calls John Hegley “metaphysical, mordant, mellifluous”: he is all of these and more. Having read it dutifully from the beginning I then enjoyed reading this selection backwards, too, in a chronological fashion.

Pippa Little

“a series of blue-green flashes”

Glass Wings, Fleur Adcock, Bloodaxe, £9.95
reviewed by Rob A. Mackenzie

fleur adcock glass wings
The ‘conversational’ poem that utilises neither strong sonic/rhythmic effects nor a gargantuan vocabulary is easy to write badly and, if it fails to deliver, the reader won’t find much to admire in the attempt. What’s remarkable is when such a poem actually succeeds. How does it do it? What makes it poetry?

A good poem is usually its own best explanation and ‘At the Crossing’, which opens Glass Wings, has no need to justify its brilliant, unshowy self. It is a ‘meaning of life’ poem. Is meaning to be found in the London young grabbing what’s there or kissing “the winged joy as it flies” (paraphrasing Blake’s ‘Eternity’)? in the ungraspable blur and whirl of the city streets? in the young man with cartoonish (perhaps ironic) wings who flickers past and disappears, his wings useless for flight and yet “definite” and, in some way, affirming for the poet?

Is a life filled by what’s grasped (even for seconds) or by what flies past, flickering and blurry? The collection ends with ‘Dragonfly’, “a series of blue-green/ flashes” in a surmised after-life’s “one perpetual day”. Flight acts as something that can’t be pinned down but which holds (in however brief flashes) a key to joy. The young man and his wings are reprised in the dragonfly:

a contraption of steel and cellophane
whose only verbs are dart, skim, hover.
One day is enough to remember.

These two excellent poems act as bookends for everything between: occasions of birth, love and death, a selection on insects. Jo Shapcott (back cover blurb from the TLS) says, “those who see in such poems only flatness are missing the power of a voice which teases both reader and subject.” However, when the power is missing, flatness remains. In ‘Flea’, an art dealer is embarrassed when a flea is discovered in his car:

his discomfiture will be repeated
until he stops being in denial
and takes the car to be fumigated.

The poem meanders like this, prosily, until we discover that Adcock is allergic to fleas (so what?). Well, the collection isn’t flawless, but is worth reading for the good poems, which tend to be very good indeed. The insect poems come alive when detail is most vivid, research most pointed. Poems on ancestors and contents of wills are fascinating, but some less so than others. There are small moments in which lives (and poems) take unexpected turns, as in ‘The Belly Dancer’, a fine example of humour, timing and detail combining to give subtle resonance to apparently conventional language. The aging, increasingly reclusive, former belly dancer’s face appears in a hallway and forgetting

whether or not we were social kissers,
I bounced my lips on it. It seemed we were not.

That “bounce”! The mass of information contained in “it seemed we were not”! The belly dancer disappears, the house is gutted and cleared out, all evidence of her existence is erased, except for the poem’s final half-line – “I won’t forget the kiss.” I will remember the poem.

Rob A. Mackenzie

“a balancing and a completeness”

Travel Light Travel Dark John Agard, Bloodaxe, £9.95
reviewed by Emma Lee

john-agard-travel-light-travel-darkTravel Light Travel Dark suggests a balancing and a completeness. Reflection is a persistent theme, the act not only of an individual looking from themselves to the outside world but also looking from outside in. The collection is loosely based around themes, starting with the colour poems which are untitled and don’t seek to distinguish shades or hues. Red is simply red, never scarlet, carnelian or poppy. The concern is with what the colours represent, e.g. “They say the poem dressed in white/ takes on the role of the angelic host/ for those who trust in the footprints of ghosts.” The generic “they say” and “those who” suggests the poet’s narrator doesn’t share these beliefs but is writing at one remove. These aren’t poems of solid foundation where a narrator shares a viewpoint, but rather rafts where the readers come aboard and let the river carry them.

A discovery that Jimi Hendrix had lived at 23 Brook Street Mayfair and Handel at number 25 inspires ‘Jimi Hendrix and Handel Under One Roof’ as the building is now combined into one.

Rumour has it a pair of ghosts, one white one black,
would flutter over chords and choral counterpoint.
Sometimes they’d share a hug, sometimes a joint.

But you know how gossip multiplies the truth.
Mostly H and H spoke of hippy rugs and lost love days
when childhood’s oratorios bloomed in a purple haze.

I appreciate the rhythms and references but wanted more detail rather than the throwaway comment, “spoke of hippy rugs and lost love days,” which is too generic to be specific to Hendrix or Handel

An actor considers the ethics of “blacking up” to play a character in ‘White Actor Prepares To Be Othello’,

Shall I invoke the muse of melanin?
Perhaps root out my family tree
for traces of a darker kin?
What if I inject a street-cred note
with some hiphop in my stride
to modernise his Moorish pride?
Ah, Max Factor to the rescue.
Mahogany, my instant hue.
We’re halfway there.
I smell catharsis in the air.
Yes, I shall blacken my face
and be quite beautiful.
A relaxed lion.
I’ll thread the thin line of race.
Inhale his story.
Lose myself in the folly
of skin.
A white handkerchief my nemesis.

Again, John Agard builds the raft but lets readers decide if this is a successful Othello or not. It successfully captures that there’s more to becoming a character than painting skin or donning a costume. There’s history, attitude and pose. The white actor never asks if he should play the part at all: the readers get to do that.

Travel Light Travel Dark has a thematic coherence and shows a poet in command of language. John Agard has a keen ear for rhythm using colloquial speech, or traditional calypsos, with some poems using phonetic spellings to capture accented speech and cross-cultural connections.

Emma Lee

“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