Tag Archives: Faber

“from being there to not”

Pink Mist, Owen Sheers, £12.99, Faber
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

pink mist sheers
Excepting Sassoon, Brooke and Owen can you name one other war poet? Where are all the great WWII poets and the Vietnam War poets? Did the First World War poets have the last word on what’s wrong with war? Actually, no. But Owen’s verse in particular tempered a new, gritty realism—gone are the heroics that typified epics likes Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’—with a degree of romanticism which made the truth of his poetry palatable, memorable and hard to better.

A century on the mechanics and vocabulary of warfare may have changed but has its essence? No. ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ is as relevant as it was in 1917 but who takes Latin nowadays? Pink Mist says nothing essentially new but couches it in language the Facebook generation will get. Likely in another hundred years it’ll need updating again.

Where it differs from what’s gone before is that it concentrates on the aftermath, how war affects both soldiers and their families. The book focuses on “three friends who’d once linked arms at school/ …chanting like fools,/ Who wants to play war?” But when the opportunity presents itself they enlist for all the wrong reasons: there’re no decent jobs in Bristol and the ads are just too tempting. They do a lot of growing up in the six weeks tour in Afghanistan: Taff, “the army made him./ But then they broke him too”; Hads, cut “down from six foot two to four foot three” and Arthur who returned seemingly unscathed but wound up going back “to hurt someone,/ to satisfy that hunger/ before [he] missed his chance.” None of them “come home proper from the war:”

But I did come back. I did.

       No you didn’t. Not Arthur anyhow.
       Some other bloke, perhaps. But not my man.

As a verse-drama Pink Mist was written to be performed and has been on Radio 4. It utilises common language, some dialect and a few specialist terms that necessitate the inclusion of a glossary. The poetry fades into the background a little from time to time but not entirely as this extract shows:

Pink mist. That’s what they call it.
When one of your mates hasn’t just bought it,
but goes in a flash, from being there to not.
A direct hit. An IED. An RPG stuck in the gut.
However it happens you open your eyes
and that’s all they are.
A fine spray of pink, a delicate mist
as if some genie has granted a wish.
There, and then not.
A dirty trick you pray isn’t true.
White heat. Code red. Pink mist.

One of several powerful images that will stay with you. The language isn’t as catchy as Owen’s but I can imagine this being performed in English classes and holding the kids’ attentions plus the girls are certainly not left with nothing to say; they provide important counterpoint. I can certainly see this on the syllabus in a few years. Alongside Owen, a suitable complement.

Jim Murdoch

“the door wants you”

Muscovy, Matthew Francis, Faber and Faber, £12.99
reviewed by Russell Jones

muscovy francis
I ought to start this review with a declaration of my prejudice: before reading Muscovy I was already a fan of Francis’ poetry. A year ago I published the book’s opening – and very fine – poem, ‘The Man in the Moon’ (based on Francis Godwin’s story of the same title, in which the narrator flies to the moon using a geese-powered shuttle) in Where Rockets Burn Through, an anthology of contemporary UK sci-fi poems. So, I had high expectations and, happily, Muscovy didn’t disappoint.

This is a playful and diverse book of poems that borrows stories from a variety of sources including myth, science and literature. This is also a collection of journeys: Francis’ narrators are frequently on the move as they meet ghostly figures on night-time vigils or clamber over sheep-laden hilltops. There’s a great sense of place, a dreaminess that is at times reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood: sleepy streets, lulling tides and phantasmal fogs stirring at your ankles. But we are far from mere observers of these myth-melded worlds, rather we are invited to join the expeditions. Take an extract from ‘Familiar Spirit’ for example, in which we sit at the embers of a lonesome fire, when there’s a rap at the door:

and now it’s a social knock, two syllables,
    hallow, shw mar, a neighbour’s upbeat,
       downbeat, doorstepping rhythms
          that just want to take
    a couple of your moments,

and why are you sitting in the reddening
    gaze of the fire when the door wants you

Francis’ use of a direct address to the reader lured me into the story. As with many of these poems, I felt as though I had become an active participant, that I too were a part of the story and community he has undressed. This technique is invoked several times to great effect without it becoming tiresome, and the frequent merger of the real and the unreal led me to consider the nature of perception itself, to ask what role myths, rumours and stories might play in altering my perception of reality.

More abstract poems derail this narrative structure, but seem to be pushing in the same direction by challenging our expectations of poetry and language. I welcome such challenges, and Francis’ attempts are usually hitting the right notes. ‘Macros’, a poem of several parts, shifts our perspective to that of the micro-world:


There used to be a game,
those chunky polygons
impinging, exploding
on the black screen of space.

Meanwhile ‘Poem in Sea’ is a series of scattered words that span two pages, encouraging the eye to land more organically or haphazardly than usual, through which multiple readings and meanings may flourish:


‘Enigma Variations’ humorously engages with the notion that written language is merely a system of symbols to which we attach meaning by substituting letters for characters:

%etween %um and %osom,
%um and %alls,
%alls and %osom:
Well-%alanced %odies.

Francis’ approach could be accused of being overly fragmented but this would be missing the point. Just as the different parts of a stained glass window give colour to the sunlight blazing through it, so it is through a breadth of form, landscapes, languages, and experiences that these poetic parts reconstruct to challenge our perception of the whole. Moreover, I was excited to turn the page, and that’s no bad thing.

Russell Jones