Tag Archives: Seren

“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

“a mix of specific and general images”

The Hitting Game, Graham Clifford, Seren, £9.99
reviewed by Emma Lee

the_hitting_game_cover_quicksand cover

Graham Clifford is a master of the knowing, wryly observed, composed magazine-length poem with a wide range of subject matter: pin ball machines (the title poem), relationships, job interviews, hotel rooms, the best poem ever or technology. In ‘Restoring “graham”’ he imagines being restored to factory settings:

a couple of hundred high frequency words
in a West Country accent;
the smell of Talcum, and jumper wool
after a Sunday morning roasting pork;
shoulder-length hair, lighter from the sun;
flared second-hand 501s brimmed over;
the recurring dream of being able to back flip;
your hand making the Millennium Falcon
skimming hedges; TV warming up
in the next room; cloud-rammed evenings;
a long, plummeting cello chord
from the music on a cigar advert;
perpetual municipal shrubbery;
the phone ringing – it’s always for you;
freckles they say will fade but don’t
until you decide you want them
charting teeming constellations
even on your lips.

This program is installed as a failsafe.
Good luck.

The reference to “high frequency words” so apt for a teacher. Its dry tone, slightly tongue in cheek, and conversational rhythm is typical of the poems throughout. ‘Restoring “graham”’ is a satisfying stand-alone poem with humour linking the list of slightly uncool images and a mix of specific and general images so the poem is both personal and recognisable to appeal to a wide audience. Accumulated images carry ‘What I Really Want to Do’ as well. The poem’s set during a job interview, although readers never discover what job the interview was for:

He tells me about him: he loves opera.
His hands are thick and small and he’s perspiring
in the receding Vs and he writes
articles on interview techniques for IT graduates,
and reviews opera.

He doesn’t say for whom.
Sometimes he’s in Geneva.
He has a suit on. No tie: it is Saturday.
But what do I really want to do?

I hold my hands out, palms up.
They’re empty.

It captures that sense of someone with no clear career path being offered an interview for which they are out of their depth because they know they can’t give the honest answer, “I need to pay bills and this seems OK.” But it doesn’t give any sense of the person caught in the dilemma. Readers can’t engage in the drama of the poem because they don’t know the narrator enough to know whether the job offer will be a good or bad thing.

In ‘Trying’ a partner asks the narrator about trying for a baby, telling him about the birth of a previous child. The first stanza:

You tell me there wasn’t one midwife
but you were visited by a set of four
on a rotating shift and when you split
like an overripe momento mori fig
it happened to be the nice one
with different David-Bowie eyes,
who stank of smoke,
telling you to breathe – like you’d forget!

In the second stanza the woman describes the feeling of the baby moving mid-pregnancy, like a moth fluttering. Readers never find out whether they try or not. Of course a writer may choose how much or how little to reveal about themselves and every writer draws on personal experience and I’m not suggesting that Graham Clifford should reveal more about his personal life, but the absence of information limits the longevity of the poems to one or two readings rather than rewarding repeated visits.

Emma Lee

“It’s time to be the people we’ll become”

My Family and Other Superheroes, Johnathan Edwards, Seren, £9.99
reviewed by Pippa Little

edwards my family

The poems in My Family and Other Superheroes are engaging, warm and deceptively straightforward. They gather in memories and experiences from family life in small-town post-industrial South Wales with exuberant imagery and an affectionate yet gimlet-eyed perspective. Edwards tells a great story and he has the advantage of his dry humour to tell it with, in all its human foibles and absurdities. He is particularly acute on Welshness, as in the poem ‘In John F. Kennedy International Airport’ where the ‘toothy blonde’ at checkout is asked why “the flight to Cardiff’s off” and replies “Wales/has been cancelled”.

This collection has more to it than a celebration of times past and present, however, no matter how well the poet achieves these aims. Edwards’ voice is more interesting than that. His poetry explores time in ways that remind me of the magic realists and it is this treatment of time, I believe, which is the core of this collection. It’s certainly what draws me in as a reader.

On one hand Edwards’ sharp eye shows us a recognisable scenario of depressed contemporary terraced streets, kebab houses, Starbucks and football pitches peopled with familiar figures – the bus driver, the girl on the make-up counter, the local bullies who are brothers, skateboard kids – within the melancholy palimpsest of a lost mining industry and damaged remnants of that culture.

On the other, the imaginative range of that poetic eye turns it all inside out. Time becomes a living medium, moves back and forth through human lives: we don’t pass the time but time passes through us and then comes back for us, doing as it pleases. As in ‘The Bloke in the Coffee Shop’, who is “soon to be himself, but somewhere else”, time is the active force and it is anything but linear or formal or controlled. It is anarchic and passionate as in the strongest, most compelling poems here, ‘My Uncle Walks to Work, 1962’, ‘Capel Celyn’, ’Anatomy’, ‘Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Crumlin…’, ‘Half Time..’ and ‘Building My Grandfather’, where accepted notions of past and present transform into something part sinister, part exultant.
The overall effect is magical and the poems glow with re-reading. Whether wryly recalling his mother’s voice or re-arranging his family members in a human pyramid, the poet’s ability to create a plausible yet surreal universe makes for a far from comfortable read but definitely a most fascinating one. One line stays with me, the final line from ‘Half Time, Wales v. Germany, Cardiff Arms Park, 1991’, when the poet relives his youthful relationship with his father: “it’s time to be the people we’ll become.”

Pippa Little

“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

“tools of the dead in the hands of the living”

Air Histories, Christopher Meredith, Seren, 2013, £8.99
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

Firstly, I need to declare my lack of Welsh to deal with certain poems in Air Histories. However, I find it particularly clever of Meredith to have a poem dealing with translation – ‘Y grib / Ridge’ – which states in English translated from Welsh:

In English it’s the dragon’s back, a name
for those who like their monsters
safely mythic, tame.

Here, the poet seems to be playing with us – taking language/ translation to high and, dare I say, ‘meta’ levels. Air is clearly a strong theme of the collection, with Daedalus soaring in his paramotor, but many of these poems are also grounded and earthed in the elements, as can be seen in ‘Earth Air’:

This piece of earth’s a billowing pavilion
you never quite peg down.
Odd corners have a stone church hammered in –
One day the earth will wake and stretch and sigh
and each church will pop its button
                                                        and she’ll fly.

One of the main achievements of these poems is to create a sense of aerial over-view – of vision that sees the connectedness of many things: the dead to the living, the inventions and tools of the dead in the hands of the living, the dead and the living in the landscape:

If woman’s blood can sing to moon,
when wind’s breath kills the rain on mountain
grass may walk again through stone and earth.

Meredith’s gaze, like the red kites in a number of his poems, does not dwell in one place too long and this gives rise to a collection of great variety and texture. With this, however, comes the occasional feeling of a lack in focus and a surface fleetingness. Some poems here struggle to achieve the air-borne quality of others, such as concrete experiments in ‘Arrowhead’ and ‘At Colonus’ which comes across at times as contrived – ‘Arrowhead’ seems to break and manipulate the words to fit its shape. That said, I sensed in these poems the same seriousness and playfulness as in Edwin Morgan’s concrete poetry of the 1960s. But even Morgan, with his ‘Little Blue Blue’, was not immune to accusations of clever-cleverness which I find particularly knowingly applied here in poems like ‘An outline description of Nihilia’:

The colours of the national flag are black
and black.
The citizens are mute.
The population of Nihilia is zero.
The country’s chief product is nothing.

However, any criticisms of such poems must be put aside when considering other poems in this collection as good as ‘The ones with the white hats’ which is a poem set in a dystopian future and ‘Daniel’s Piano’ – a poem in a similar vein, set in a future brutal regime where violence is disguised under a layer of polite chatter:

Daniel’s house stands
on a village they emptied.

Nobody talks of the village’s going.
Its old name is silenced.

Simon is a good man. His manner gentle.
The guests discuss poetry. Nobody plays.

Set alongside these more menacing poems are a series of poems about guitars and song and the attempts of the poet, craftsman and musician to get their song out there and heard in the midst of such struggle. It is these poems which make the collection one to keep returning to in works of music and witness, such as ‘The guitar maker Antonio de Torres in old age described by the priest Juan Martinez Sirvent’:

A pinch of air
was all he had.

That was fifty years ago and now
his work is his witness.
If witness was my work
perhaps I had come to terms with mysteries
or perhaps I failed.

Richie McCaffery