Tag Archives: Jim Murdoch

“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

“journeys have their special relativities…”

Pursued by Well-being, Mark Russell, tall-lighthouse, £5.00
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

mark russell pursued
The poems in this slim pamphlet are set in places as far-flung as the Jewish quarter in Prague, Addis Ababa, Rome and some bus stop on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. “Journeys,” Mark writes, “have their special// relativities./ Some end in relief/ others in catastrophe.” Whatever we’ve just ended or wherever we end up the one thing we all have to do, however, is cope, so if what Williams said is true and poems are machines then these are all coping mechanisms. Personally I would’ve named this collection after its final poem, ‘One Way Ticket Round the World’, and would have moved it to the start for its opening sound advice:

All you need is an umbrella—
                 because you must visit Scotland;

It isn’t always chucking it down in Scotland; sometimes it just drizzles. In fact it’s a clear night on the M74 in the poem of the same title although the narrator still winds up recalling a rainy night from his past.

To remember a journey
it must have more
than uneaten sausage rolls

under the seat,
flames from the boot,
ice on the tyres.

The poet makes his entrance in the opening poem:

I wait in the wings upstage left,
breathe in through the nose,
out through the mouth, cluck
consonants, throw forth some vowels.

Mark has his homemade bag full of tricks: puns and similes, alliterations, metaphors and a layer of wry, and occasionally quite dark, humour:


As an act of love
I promise to have
A crimson tattoo
Of little red hearts
In the softened wheals
Your teeth left behind.

There’s nothing here we’ve not seen before. What we’re made to do though is look again, as in the title poem:

It’s like seeing sheep in the high street,
or molten gold hanging from the trees.

Or it might be your dad dropping “his drawers/ in Oils and Dressings at Tesco” or some old codger swatting “the rain as it hits the glass” on the bus. Come again?

Coping is a journey, moving from one state to another. Sometimes the answer is to physically relocate and Mark does seem to have lived a peripatetic life; other times it’s a shift in perspective that’s needed. There’s an inevitable looking back here although I expect Mark tossed his rose-tinted spectacles out some car window years ago: his Proustian madeleines are all “flat and tasteless”. He remembers scramblers, rooms, his mate’s sister who precipitated his first erection, the woods near his house, although at the time he

…did not see the black thoughts—
how they were sown, sprouted roots,
harrowed the wild woodland playground
to this place of unadorned silence.

It took me a while to get into this chapbook. Couldn’t quite make a connection. But it grew on me. Some poems felt voyeuristic and left me with that uncomfortable awkward feeling Larkin does so well; not a criticism. My favourites were the Glasgow-based because I’ve been there. Minor issue: the print was a wee bit small for me.

Jim Murdoch

“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

“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

“moments seen through other moments”

Sweet Coffee, Margaret Wilmot, £5.00, Smiths Knoll
reviewed by Jim Murdoch
Sweet Coffee image
Margaret Wilmot was born in California and spent various years working in the Mediterranean before settling in Sussex in 1978. ‘Writing, for me, is a tool for making connections and refining perception—always a search . . .’ she writes although I expect most writers could say much the same. I mention her history first because it provides the backbone of the collection: we begin in the States, head through Greece and Egypt and wind up in sunny Eastbourne.

In the title poem of this pamphlet (which you can find here) a premonition and an instance of déjà vu are triggered by a Proustian cup of coffee; “imagination and memory are but one thing,” Hobbes said and which scientists are now proving. In some respects it’s an inconsequential poem—how many cups of coffee do we have in a lifetime?—but it’s a good opener for this collection as Margaret talks a lot about how we perceive distant things. Three poems, for example, use arrows as metaphors, connecting distant objects:

Even as the fullness swells we must give chase,
with arrows consummate the longed-for intimacy.

[‘Ducks, geese’]

Of course the arrows don’t always hit their marks. Instead of remembering a past we reconstruct it; rather than the true past we opt for the preferred past, postcards from the past:

What does one say when it’s cats and primroses
which fill a mind now emptying like a room?
Or maybe not – who can gasp a moment
which brims like light and spills out over things?

[‘Who live each moment now’]

“Things emerge. Fade.” Once we travelled and “not only in the mind”; “one’s whole body entered on a quest”:

Now it’s Google, and the loss of that dull space

along blank streets, when suddenly
you think – and stop to make a note. Or don’t think.


All the time one thing reminds us of another:

The pond ripples and the duck’s plump breast
lifts, I see the thin sheen
of polished wood, wing feathers etched…


Several of the poems are clearly talking about older people struggling to cope. The most poignant, for me at least, was ‘Thinning’:

Terrible this thinning –
yet her body like a plum rests

full of roundness on the chair.
He has cut her meal in little bites, and eats his own

without much mind.

I love the double meaning in that last line. The blurb says, “These are poems about connection—through geography, family, over bridges of thought: moments seen through other moments, the layers which constitute now.” It’s a good description. Google remembers the world but it doesn’t remember us. What makes us us? A drive “along/ the north shore of Lake Erie”, “a pair of Robin Hood boots”, a striped cat who’s “a compendium both of all things/ cat and all the cats [we’ve] ever known”: things, just things, and things they give rise to.

You can hear Margaret read ‘A guard came out’ here. And you can read two more reviews of the pamphlet at Sphinx.

Smiths Knoll has now closed its doors but the collection’s available on the poet’s website.

Jim Murdoch

“anyone could’ve written them but you try…”

Cold Soup, Nic Aubury, Nasty Little Press, £10
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

cold soup
In the 1970’s, had you’d asked Joe Public to name a living poet, depending on their age you’d have got one of two answers: Pam Ayres or John Cooper Clarke. I doubt Edwin Morgan, arguably the most multifaceted and technically gifted poet Scotland’s ever produced, would’ve got a look in. Master craftsmen Ayres and Clarke may not have been but they were popular. And funny.

Nic Aubury’s an ordinary bloke: a grumpy parent, part-time pedant and armchair philosopher. He’s also a funny poet and I can imagine him being very popular. Many of his poems are framed like one-liners that happen to rhyme:


To most men the notion
of ‘romance and mystery’
means clearing the porn from
their Internet history.

Wouldn’t be out of place on a Purple Ronnie card. Have a closer look at that poem though with its pleasant, rocking dactylic rhythms. It’s technically proficient, flows off the tongue, is well-observed and has a clever title, something jokes lack. It’s rather Ogden Nash-ish. One of his to compare:


Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

Humour comes naturally to most but few can get up on stage and be funny. These poems look like anyone could’ve written them but you try. Getting end rhymes isn’t so hard; it’s varying the rhythm within a tight metre that’s the bugger and this is, for me, where Aubury excels:


The owl is not the wisest bird,
in spite of what you might have heard,
for, if he were, I think – don’t you? –
he’d say ‘Too whoom’ and not ‘Too whoo’.

Not all the poems in this collection are four-liners but most are short apart from one sestina. He finds humour in the commonplace and is frequently self-deprecatory:

Being Frank

And now the end is near for me,
a father, husband, employee,
and through it all, I’m bound to say,
I did it someone else’s way.

Because of their brevity none of these individually will have the staying power—or, indeed, just the power of poems like ‘Evidently Chickentown’ or memorability of ‘I wish I’d looked after me teeth’ (which graces the walls of countless dentists’ waiting rooms throughout the country apparently) but they hold their own again the best and best-loved—comic verse by the likes of Nash or Spike Milligan. They do seem perfectly suited for his Twitter feed.

Nic writes about everyday life; about struggling to be a good dad; about trying to get your kid to eat; about getting over breakups and clearing up after a death in the family. There’s something here for everyone and not simply grannies as one other reviewer suggested; some of the poems—like the one about textese—might lose them:

Thx & rgds

However important you are, or how stressed,
you’re never too busy for vowels, I’d suggest.

Arnold Schoenberg said, “There is still much good music that can be written in C major.” Nic Aubury proves there’s still a lot of good comic poetry to be written in rhyme.

Jim Murdoch

“this webbing of routes across the earth”

Terra Ignota, Rosalind Hudis, £5.00, Rack Press
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

“Beyond here be dragons” is the expression I’m more familiar with than terra ignota or terra incognito. Our lives are mapped out for us—at least that’s how it seems sometimes—then the unexpected happens and we find ourselves gazing out over Shakespeare’s undiscovered country, expecting, ailing or facing death. This is where these poems are set. In the first three: a man has leukaemia, his son is wheelchair-bound, an old woman’s crippled by senility and grief and a father’s died after a long illness; the last three trace the life of a Down’s syndrome child—“a chromosome too many,/ a glitch in the smooth/ running chain” —from her conception to becoming a Friends-obsessed young girl.

The opening poem feels slightly out of place here although it’s the only one that’s identifiably Welsh and reminded me of R.S. Thomas—perhaps because these people are neighbours (all the others have a familial feel)—but it’s the first to introduce the mapping theme which unifies the collection:

Beneath me, the earth’s
a map, its roots
spores, seeds, twigs,
small bones stored

like codes.

This theme is taken up in ‘Rupture’ where an old woman (Rosalind’s grandmother?) is clearly lost:

There are days the phone rings,
but she can’t re-map the way
her hands could bridge a room
to open or close the tap of speech.

In the titular poem we have a similar portrait of senility:

My father, in his final illness, adrift
across an armchair, barely able

to tack the crucial space from hearth
to toilet

Is the unknown always bleak? It depends “how you colour it”. What threatens to be a rather dark collection ends, surprisingly, on bright note:

       on this webbing of routes across the earth

that’s skin deep wherever you go
my daughter paints in the chiaroscuro
episodes of a self she will be.

None of the poems in this set are available online but Snowscape and Photograph especially will give you a taste of Rosalind’s style.

I wasn’t sure about that first poem but I suppose it has its place. We start at distance, with neighbours, and move through grandparents to parents to children. It’s a journey. Rosalind can no longer stand at a distance and watch. Her foreign-looking child has wandered off into unexplored territories and she must follow:

                                lead me there
into the heart of this pale green valley of paper
in safety, go where I go without history

Poetry’s a strange place, a land to get lost in—in good ways and bad—and so it’s the perfect setting for a discussion of uncomfortable topics like illness and death. Textbooks and leaflets—like the one she’s handed in ‘Disclosure’—list “the defects” but they don’t see, can’t see, the individuals. These poems do. Even if most of the characters remain nameless we recognise them; we know them. They may have set off for parts unknown but they’re not foreigners. They’re us and some day we will be them. A thought-provoking and touching collection.

Jim Murdoch

“the present is lost to us”

The Cavafy Variations, Ian Parks, £5.00, Rack Press
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

Translation’s a bugger; Auden says as much in his introduction to The Complete Poems of Cavafy. Yet he notes, “I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it.” Cavafy found his voice late on and only completed 154 carefully crafted poems, available here in various translations.

Ten poems aren’t much of a sampler—some well-known poems are omitted—but Parks provides examples of Cavafy’s three core themes: the philosophical, historical and hedonic (or sensuous) although there’s nothing of the erotic for which he is (in)famous; it wouldn’t have hurt to include a poem like ‘One Night’. Parks’ own poetry is known for being “spare, lyrical, memorable and intense”; similar could also be said of Cavafy despite being anti-Romantic and (arguably) antipoetic: his setting—the city, his interest—the past.

Variations are common in music, not so much in poetry: we would probably talk of “loose translations” which these aren’t really although they veer towards the Poundian ideal—aim to capture the ‘spirit’ of the original—and having compared his efforts with earlier versions I would say they’re fresh (some might say refreshing) interpretations.

The philosophical chimed with me from the line of lit and extinguished candles in ‘Candles’, through the damage that follows us in ‘The City’, to the life that becomes nothing more than a “tedious acquaintance” in ‘If Possible’. All these focus on a sense of belatedness as do the historical because, so quickly, the present is lost to us. Cavafy wrote, “With me the immediate impression does not provide the impulse for work. The impression must become part of the past, must be falsified of itself, by time, without my having to falsify it.”

It’s not the time to have regrets,
to brood upon the glories of your past
or curse the good luck you once had
now that it’s faltering, running low.

[‘The God Abandons Antony’]

Thankfully Parks chose from Cavafy’s less esoteric historical pieces; the man did tend to be drawn towards the backwaters of history.

‘Candles’ is the perfect poem to open this group. It exemplifies the betwixtness inherent in Cavafy’s poetry, trapped between a squandered past and an uncertain future. All that’s left to us is to wander through the ruins of our lives. It may be crass to say so but it feels sometimes as if Cavafy gets off on regret. The one thing man learns from history, however, is that man learns nothing from history:

            At each street corner, looking back
I see myself among the ruined squares,
the cafés and the harbour bars,
repeating the identical mistakes.

[‘The City’]

There’s a lot to Cavafy and it helps to know something about him before reading him. For a plain-spoken writer—I can see why a Yorkshireman would be drawn to him—there’s much subtlety under the surface of these short poems and, thankfully, Parks is equally sensitive to that.

Jim Murdoch

“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

“the poetry clings to people for dear life”

The Stern Wave, Noel King, €12.00, Salmon Poetry
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

The Stern Wave
If Paul Valery was right and “poems are never finished—just abandoned” then what each reader brings to the table is as important as the poet’s contribution. The Stern Wave’s blurb says that King “plays with our sense of environmental conscience” but after a first read-through if asked I’d have said, “This is all about family.” It’s actually somewhat broader than that; it’s about interrelationships, social interactions. The blurb also says that King “takes on many personas” which he does and many of them are familial: “granny always said”, “my uncle’s cattle”, “helping his father”, “I met my wife”, “her toddler takes a pee”, “mother’s 75th birthday beckons”. Often they connect in run-of-the-mill ways; poetry mined from day-to-day mundanity. Hard not to think of Larkin.

The opening poem about a suicidal painter, from which the collection borrows its title, didn’t grab me but with the second, ‘Puzzle’, things started to come into focus:

On top of my mother’s jigsaw
I place study stuff
and the Collins Dictionary

By the fourth poem, ‘Mummies’, which is set in 1974, I found myself conjuring up a world I was comfortable with; I definitely look back on the seventies through rose-tinted glasses. There’s a poignancy here as well as a suffusion of nostalgia or perhaps that’s me; hard to tell. Suffice to say these poems ache. Noel King was born and lives in Tralee, Ireland so, unsurprisingly, certain cultural references escaped me: I had to google “GAA” (Gaelic Athletic Association) and “go hálainn” (beautifully) but I got the gist just fine. Poems like ‘Man on a Tractor in County Laois’ inevitably remind one of a young Heaney.

These are meat and two veg poems lightly seasoned with metaphorical language. King serves up strong imagery—arguably poetry in its purest form—and many pieces hinge on what I call the “eh moment”, the one that comes before the “aha moment”:

Drunk’s Wife

She wanted her left
hand to be free,
release the ring
she no longer saw herself in.

It was stuck fast
above the knuckle
until they pulled it off
in the morgue.

On one level it’s obvious what’s happened. Then you wonder if you read it right. Maybe it’s not as straightforward as you first thought—maybe the ring’s like a boxing ring; maybe her husband punched her—and then it dawns on you.

There’s much pain in these poems—a child clamours for attention, a husband can’t face his wife, a mistress feels for her lover’s wife, an adulteress hangs herself but only after she’s washed a clean frock to be buried in—but it’s leavened with wry, tongue-in-cheek humour.

If a tree fell in the forest and there was no one there to commemorate it would there be any poetry? For all Nature tries to assert herself in this collection (mainly through water), the poetry clings to people for dear life. And it’s them you’ll remember.

You can read five of his poems here and hear him recite another here.

Jim Murdoch