Tag Archives: Russell Jones

‘how we might continue to exist…’

Professor Heger’s Daughter, Chrissie Gittins, Paekakariki Press, £10
reviewed by Russell Jones

gittins prof heger

Is our world about to end?
I must draw, urge it to mend.

[“World Without End” p.20]

I’d never come across Chrissie Gittins’ work before. Her pamphlet, Professor Hedger’s Daughter, introduces her as a quite prolific writer of adult and children’s poetry, as well as a short story writer and radio playwright. What a find she is! Professor Heger’s Daughter is one of the finest pamphlets I’ve read in recent years, for its range of ideas, its emotional sensitivity, its great wit and humour, and – more than anything else – its deranged use of language. I mean that sincerely; this is a writer who isn’t resting on linguistic laurels, her words pop out of the page in a “what just happened” way that makes me want to soak it up and then revisit it over and over again.

The pamphlet is about many things and it’s hard to pin a theme down or hold it at gunpoint, but not to its degradation. Many of the poems are about loss and reconciliation. How do we cope with change and movement in life? This could simply be the migration of a man from the Shetlands to Glasgow, wondering where the wind disappeared to (‘The Man Who Moved From Shetland to Glasgow’) or something altogether more emotionally poignant, such as finding constant reminders of a missing loved one:

Are you by the floral teacups, beside the plate of scones?
Or in the yeast which lifts your father’s bread?

Perhaps you’re in the candlelight which wraps the Christmas tree,
or in the brush which coaxed your peat brown hair.

[“Where is Freya?” p.3]

There’s a clear reference here to Mary Elizabeth Frye’s 1930s poem, ‘Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep’ (“I am a thousand winds that blow. / I am the diamond glints on snow.”) but I find this altogether more successful in some ways, more personal through its homely approach and use of specific details.

A number of the poems become reflections on the presentation of memory, or the past, and the artistic imperative, or perhaps (in)ability to capture it. This offers a counterpoint to the art work in the book, prints from wooden engravings by Helen Porter. These are fine visual nuggets to digest, sometimes imagist, sometimes simply abstract. The two art forms combine to raise serious questions about the permanence of our creations and how we might continue to exist after we too are “lost”.

Gittins could be accused of verging on schmalziness (‘Isoal di Lolanda’, with its refrains: “Love is allowed to be … Love is allowed its day … Love has its way.”) but I think she more generally gets away with it. Her poetry is lifted by its fresh use of language, its witticism and absurdity, even if the idea within isn’t necessary the most original. I wholly recommend taking a read and I’d be very keen to read more of Gittins’ work. If you’re still not convinced, here’s an extract from the collection’s opening poem, ‘The Table Decker’s Daughter’:

Too soon, when all that was left were bones and stones,
it fell to me to whip the cloth away

and shake a veil of grey through an open window.
Is it any wonder he fell back into cake?

When the castle cat sat on the creation he threw
his box of colours to the ground.

I found him weeping in a pool of palest blue.
He’s content now with jumballs, biskets, candied fruits,

though once I caught him, eyes closed,
throwing his arms in arabesques across the kitchen floor,

dropping stags and mountain sheep
beside the open door.

Russell Jones


“previewing the fears of storm”

Leaf Graffiti, Lucy Burnett, Carcanet, £9.95
reviewed by Russell Jones

Leaf Graffiti is Lucy Burnett’s first collection of poetry, a book which ought to be my cup of chai as it explores urban and natural life through a frequently-scientific lens, which I’m keen on. She’s also designed the book’s cover and I must say that her visual art work, from the cover and a few other pieces I’ve seen, is excellent. So, even before opening up, I was ready to be on-board the Burnett train.

The book is made up of five key sections, although I did find it difficult at times to pin down what made each section distinct, or why one poem featured in one section rather than another. The first of these sections is a series of 17 line poems, each disjointed (graffiti-like) by utilising visual gaps, but with their own cohesion:

a siren bullies down the rush hour street
     setting sail to seagulls in the park
         it’s getting dark although an early wind
is rustling up the newborn leaves      the litter
hastens down the road      while the limegreen copper
beech is previewing the fears of storm

[‘xlii. narcotic‘]

The sequence works best when read as a whole, although is altogether a little too long and may struggle to keep your attention. There are some killer lines dotted throughout (my favourite being “welcome to Scotland we promise not to eat you”) but Burnett’s use of repetition within and between poems, whilst maintaining an almost-incantation feel, could be dismissed as a little bland. That said, she is singing a varied song of peoples and places in which most readers would find something to enjoy.

The book surprised me: the poems I most expected to like (the sciency ones, or those that experimented with form) were not necessarily my favourites. In fact I much preferred the more personal poems, those which hit a toffee hammer against the heart, and prodded me in the eye with a finger rather than with a pipette. Scientific language can be problematic outside of an academic paper, and Burnett’s use of such terminology occasionally alienated me, not least because it’s hard to visualise (“erstwhile photographs void of / haemoglobin chlorophyll” – from ‘xviii. Crevice‘). However there are definitely times when it works. In “Oval”, one of my favourite poems in the collection, the speaker describes the consultation, process and after effects of an opertion:

I watch my breath as bloody streams of oxygen,
drowning life from inside out. Doubts appear
quite clear in neurone etch-a-sketch –
steroid hormones more than just a concept

These medical terms add a certain visceral quality to the events being described, whilst also amplifying the narrator’s doubts as they attempt to mould scientific understanding into a coping mechanism or catharsis. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Edwin Morgan’s (who gets a mention in Burnett’s poem, “Slabs of Strawberry”) dialogue poem “Gorgo and Beau” in which a healthy cell and a cancerous cell debate their purpose in Morgan’s body, albeit different in approach.

This is a book of places and ideas, often – but not always – satisfying. Its language can be enthralling at times, but mundane at others. There are interesting ideas, some exhilarating turns of phrase, but somehow not quite enough to keep me yearning and coming back for more. I want to take out my scissors and cut it back because the good bits really are good, but they’re a little lost amongst the browning leaves.

Russell Jones

“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

“a sense of incompleteness”

This is Yarrow by Tara Bergin (Carcanet, £9.95)
reviewed by Russell Jones

Bergin, This is Yarrow
Tara Bergin’s debut collection, This is Yarrow, promises “sensuous, supple lyricism” and “unsettling familiarity of folklore, fairytale and dream”. These are exciting qualities to me, and with this blurb excerpt playing on my mind I started the book enthusiastically. But, please believe me, I find this difficult to say: I didn’t like this book.

My difficulty comes here: there’s a curved line to draw between objectively appreciating that the poems are well constructed and considered, and my own reaction as I close the covers. Bergin’s formal experiments are to be admired as they frequently, although not always, inform the poems’ contents. Her more musical pieces also arrest the ear. And yet I came away so often unaffected and – dare I say it – uninterested, that many of the poems were forgotten almost as soon as I’d read them. Take the poem, ‘Candidate’, for example; a series of 5 interview questions and proposed tips for answering:

1. Can you tell me about yourself?
Many candidates are tripped up by this. Here’s an example of what
to say: ‘I have 10 years of experience in the accounting profession.’

The poem continues in a similar vein, ending on a recommendation:

6. Remember: displaying grace under pressure will highlight your
professionalism and help you to stand out as a prospective member
of the company.

Here, the formal layout and Bergin’s almost-mechanised matter-of-fact language suits the content, but the poem doesn’t make enough of a statement or lead us to any new insight. So many of the poems lead us down a path that never goes anywhere satisfactory. So many of them explore “almosts” and “not quites”, absences that left the collection and the reader feeling ethereal and distant, unchallenged and unaffected. Of course I could accept that this might be the point, and the fragmented narratives that form the collection do build a sense of incompleteness that rings true, but it’s far from thrilling and the parts never quite fit together to make a sense of a whole.

There are some outstanding poems. In particularly, the title poem, ‘This is Yarrow’ (the closing poem), blends the real with the surreal in a dream-like incantation whose reality permeates to create a splendid tension that I wish so many of the poems had also achieved:

[…] and in this dream I went up to the dirty bus station
and I saw the black side of the power station
as if the brown moth’s tapping at the window
made me say it I said, do you still love me?

Others that do stay with me include ‘White Crow’, ‘The Passion Flower’ and ‘St Patrick’s Day Address, 1920’, each resonating with a sense of loss and displacement in their relative worlds. But there simply wasn’t enough for me to cling on to from This is Yarrow: I wanted to sense, to feel, to understand but, with the exception of a few glittering lights among the darkness, I saw almost nothing.

Russell Jones

“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