Tag Archives: Judith Taylor

“We survived, but in a different state…”

BOOM!, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Seren 2014, £9-99
reviewed by Judith Taylor


Devoting a full-length collection to a single subject is risky, the intensity of focus potentially offset by repetition or sameness of tone. in BOOM!,Carolyn Jess-Cooke doesn’t completely avoid the pitfalls. The overlap between ‘Working Mother’ and ‘Poem Made from Bits of Newspaper Headlines’, for instance, diminished their impact for me. ‘Working Mother’ is a strong poem, dramatising both the personal impact of motherhood

                                 I was not ready
to leave the softness of her. My life before
peeled keenly from me, old weather

and its politics

Justified myself to strangers.
Argued over Child Tax Credit

and nursery policies and childcare hours,
whether daycare created criminals
and divorce. Comfort ate.

But it suffers from being followed by the second poem, whose “found” examples don’t add anything to what the poet has said more effectively in her own words.

The latter’s closing line (“Who’d be a working mum in the UK?”) illustrates another weakening tendency of some of these poems – obvious choices, either in imagery (maternal protectiveness given the well-worn metaphor “you are/ addressing someone who just became a tiger/ so be careful”, in ‘Different Water’) or in editorialising. ‘What Matters’, for example, describing the horror of losing sight of your toddler in a crowded place, undermines itself with an unsubtle title and conclusion: parental helplessness is more powerfully evoked in the bolder ‘Thetis’, which reaches into the mythic in the face of a child’s illness

                        ….lord of stealing his breath
I who thought I had conquered all by giving life

Lapses like these sell short an interesting collection, which addresses a subject that is still under-explored compared to those with longer-standing canonical status. Alongside lyrical evocations such as ‘The Waking’, ‘Hare’ and ‘Daughtering’

            How deftly you tell my many weathers, human barometer.
How my mother’s words fall out of my mouth
            and then from yours

there are more painful, often more political, poems, enlivened by a broad choice of imagery, as in the title poem:

There was this baby who thought she was a hand grenade.

… she blew us to smithereens.
We survived, but in a different state: you became
       organized, I discovered patience

or ‘The Days of the Ninth Month’, which emulates Sharon Olds’s ‘The Language of the Brag’ without imitating it, drawing on geology, archaeology and Old Testament story for its effects. I particularly liked ‘Motherhood Diptych’, whose medical analogy unfolds in an unexpected and witty direction. The collection opens out, too, in exploring how parenthood can send a person back to re-examine their own childhood, as in ‘Breaking My Father’, or ‘Children of the Bullied’, who roll their eyes at

… a kiss from their anxious
parents, to whom they are
so brave, so unlike them

And there are moments of transcendence, such as the beautiful, spacious ‘Belfast Murmuration’

                  No healing without first being broken

The way one bird shatters into thousands

There is a lot of substance in this collection: more stringent selection and editing, though, would have shown its strengths to better advantage.

Judith Taylor

“the vocabulary of colour”

Eva and George – Sketches in Pen and Brush, Abegail Morley, Pindrop Press, £7.99
reviewed by Judith Taylor

When a poet draws on external material (history, biography, other artforms), the show/tell question is often tricky. Too much apparatus can diminish the poems and distract the reader, or indeed the writer (I speak as the author of a sequence which, but for wise editorial intervention, would have had not just endnotes but statistical tables): but an absolutist insistence that poems must stand by themselves also carries a risk, that those poems may have to contain (literally) too much information, too much that is properly the work of prose.

Abegail Morley’s pamphlet depicts the satirical artist Georg Grosz and his wife Eva Peter, in the period between their meeting in Berlin in 1916 and their emigration to the US in 1933. This takes in a lot of history, much of it grim. At the same time, readers are more than likely unfamiliar with Grosz’s art, which is central to the sequence. Morley largely avoids the pitfalls, giving the reader pointers, but not so many as to obstruct the poetry: a brief introduction and minimal notes to the poems; a small selection of reproductions to give a flavour of Grosz’s work; and a more detailed timeline kept to the end.

Her choice of Eva’s point of view is one I occasionally questioned: Georg’s own voice (as apparent in the two quotations that bookend the sequence) was articulate and engaging, and the second- and third-person of the poems sometimes imposes too much distance. On the whole, though, I think it is the right approach, letting us see the artist as well as the art, and making more explicit connections between them and the external events that shaped both.

It also allows the art to be described in something approaching lay terms: technicalities come in mainly in the vocabulary of colour, accessible to the reader and at the same time satisfyingly evocative and precise.

Ebert dies and you want to paint Germany cobalt blue,
say it’s the colour of silence, how it turns white
when there’s too much noise.

[‘Oil Painting: 1925’]

In poems that are mainly short, and plain in form, and which largely eschew imagery other than Georg’s own, the colours take us out of the literal into emotional and symbolic dimensions –

Sounds like boots. Black boots. Marching boots.

You tell me everything is schwarz, that your nightmares
throw their arms around you each night….

[‘1921: Deutschland Uber Alles’]

Even the ferocious ‘Burgerbraukeller: 1923’ dramatises the couple’s hatred, and fear, of Hitler almost in terms of art, albeit an art not Grosz’s own:

we want to slit him open,
drag the middle from him

black as bitumen,
lay him out like we’re morticians,

inject his carotid artery, puncture
his hollow organs, fill his carcass

with Egyptian red gold

The cost of using Eva as our lens is the extent to which it effaces her – most startlingly when she describes the birth of their first child: “Peter Michael joins us in cadmium red” (‘1926: Stammhalter’) – although she was clearly a strong character in her own right. But where she is given metaphorical language of her own, as when she describes her husband

         opening and closing your sketchbook
like it’s a pair of wings desperate to leave

[‘Widmung an Oskar Panizza’]

the effect is all the more striking. The clipped intensity of the early poems recreates very effectively the tense, constrained lives the couple lead in the early inter-war period.

At some points, however, the approach worked less well for me: the handling of external events is occasionally heavy-handed, most jarringly in the poem from 1921 just quoted, which ends

         Hitler becomes leader
of the Nazi party – we wonder whose name

will last the test of time.

And in the later part of the sequence I felt events were being allowed to flash past too quickly, and an increasing reliance on our knowledge of the external context. The abrupt ending with the couple’s departure from Germany leaves a sense of unresolved struggle, particularly as the endnotes reveal that in a way they did not escape: poverty and depression followed them into their new life, and after Georg’s sudden death in 1958 Eva filed a successful restitution claim for the damage done to them by the Nazi persecutions.

I think, though, that the problem is not with the poems so much as with the constraints imposed by the pamphlet format. I would have liked to see these poems given more room to expand, both in historical breadth and in biographical depth. But as they stand they are a powerful achievement – an intense, unsettling and often salutary read.

Judith Taylor

“a dark world, alive with sound and glitter”

She Inserts the Key, Marianne Burton, Seren 2013, £8-99
reviewed by Judith Taylor

she_inserts_the_keyAlthough billed as “a collection of voices”, She Inserts the Key leaves a powerfully unified impression, largely thanks to the care with which it is structured. A (mainly) secular litany of sonnets, ‘Meditations on the Hours’, runs through it, and the poems between often relate, directly or obliquely, to them. But the pattern isn’t obtrusive and there is a plenty of variety in form and content, coupled with an unshowy command of language and a clear-eyed, sometimes bracingly disillusioned, sensibility.

‘Owls at Midnight’, for instance, begins in low key, as the speaker wakes her daughter to watch “two owls talking to one another”. It intensifies, describing them:

Each time the far one calls, the near one
elongates and whistles like a steam train ;
then, in the answering silence, he trembles
his whole body, waiting…

then returns us to earth, as the child (and her father: “‘I told you she wouldn’t care’, he says”) fail to be delighted. In the following sonnet, ‘Midnight: Hallaton: Before the Storm’, the “owl-stirred blackness” is more threatening and unstable. And later comes a lighter counterpoint, ‘5pm: Stoneleigh: The Lie of the Pool’, whose teenage speaker declines to humour her artist mother:

It was the school pool, mother, I would say,
Ugly, noisy, with heel plasters in the water.

But she, rinsing out my costume
saw the barnacled undersides of whales…

Where a sequence starts and ends is crucial, and Burton’s hours run from midnight to midnight. Hallaton is established early as a main setting: a place of often uncomfortable domesticity where the sheets are

… not embroidered
with rose or gorse.
Not new, not ironed.
Just creased, coarse

cheap store cotton
for the night tomb
[‘Changing the Sheets’]

As the hours reach daylight the scenery becomes more various, sometimes fantastical, sometimes brighter. But the prevailing sense is of a dark world, alive with sound and glitter, where human safety is precarious.

Good on landscape, Burton is also alert to the artificial – the title poem, for instance, puts adult spin on The Emperor and the Nightingale – and this is one of several ways in which she reminded me of the Jacobeans. Her range of reference is broad, often with a scientific slant. But there is a religious awareness too, in poems like ‘Lacrimae rerum‘ and ‘3pm: The Ninth Hour, Calvary’. And alongside bleak wit there is compassion, for the powerless, the unhappy, the left-behind, culminating in the Calvary sonnet

[f]or those who sit at the foot of a cross.
For those who suffer in the dark.

For those who have marked in their diary
the hour when, for them, a heart stopped.

Occasionally I felt she over-reaches – ‘The Devil’s Cut’, with its abrupt shifts of viewpoint, makes an argument but for me doesn’t cohere as a poem; and when ‘2pm: Summer crossing to Iona’, began “You should come here in winter, through rough water” it seemed almost predictable. But this is a terrific collection overall, and I look forward to more from its author.

Judith Taylor

“Old poets stay at home to become explorers…”

Speak, Old Parrot, Dannie Abse (Hutchinson, hbk £15-00)
reviewed by Judith Taylor

It seems to churlish to wonder if a poet in his nineties has anything left to write, but the question will occur to readers of this collection, not least because Abse himself keeps raising it.

Old poets stay at home to become explorers;
the older they get, the smaller they get
and, relentlessly, the trees grow tall. (‘In Highgate Woods’)

And sometimes the answer seems to be “no”. For me, there is too much in this vein:

At 3 p.m. I’m sitting in L’artista
as usual, bored, waiting for something unusual. (‘Wasp’)

What he’s aiming for is suggested by ‘Perspectives’, subtitled ‘5 paragraphs for Frank O’Hara’, but he doesn’t manage O’Hara’s trick of making the whole greater than the accumulated parts. The effect is close to maundering in places, with descents into bufferishness:

Why does this make me think how those poets
who write enigmatic nonsense become famously
the darlings of the professors they despise? (‘Perspectives’)

Similarly ‘Blue Song’, tiredly surveying modern art, ends with a predictable poke at Hirst and Emin: its closing “All I lack is talent/that’s why I sing the Blues”, presumably meant as ironising self-deprecation, doesn’t redeem it for me. Usually I welcome humour in poetry, but here it is often heavy-handed, causing crashing shifts of tone in the two sequences ‘The Summer Frustrations of Dafydd ap Gwilym’ and ‘Vows’, and contributing to the collection’s patchy and uneven feel.

It’s a pity, because there are good poems here too. I think the book’s flaws would have disappointed me less if it hadn’t also contained evidence that, for all his fears, Abse still has what it takes. The finely-sustained smuttiness of ‘Cricket Bat’ made me laugh out loud, and in ‘Parable’, seriousness and deadpan humour dovetail neatly as the poet confronts two doorstep evangelists who ask if he knows the end of the world is nigh.

I reply Yes and they are manifestly disappointed.
When I confess I keep a packed suitcase
ready upstairs,
they retreat with Olympic pace.

‘In Highgate Woods’ is similarly sure-footed in its treatment of the ways in which poets might confront mortality. And ‘Scent’ is both a touching elegy for the poet’s wife and a meditation on the uses and limitations of poetry itself. Catching the scent of a flowering shrub she planted

                            – one so alluring,
so delinquent, it could have made Adam
fall on Eve, with delight, in Eden

he lingers beside it

                                    allowing myself
the charm and freedom of inebriating fancy
till the scent becomes only the scent itself
returning, and I, at the gate, like Orpheus,
sober, alone, and a little wretched.

The light touch with which he combines the personal, the sensuous, and the mythical make this as good a poem as any of Abse’s that I know. Again, it would seem churlish to complain he doesn’t always work at this pitch – who does? – but a slimmer collection, with fewer of the more humdrum poems to muffle the best, might have served his reputation better.

Judith Taylor