Archive for November, 2008

December part one

I can’t quite believe it: here I am, on the edge of the last month of the year, with only a few more poets to go until I get to the slated fifty-two (although unless I double up on my Christmas holidays I won’t quite have finished before the year is out). Looking back at the list of poets and collections I’ve read feels like looking back over a journey. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

Unfortunately I’m a bit disorganised this month: usually I’ll have a stack of books ready to go by now, but that’s somehow not happened. I blame busyness, and the run-up to Christmas having already begun. So for now all I have lined up is Maura Dooley’s Life Under Water (Bloodaxe Books, 2008). I’ll post the rest of my December books when I’ve got them.

forty-five: Helen Farish, Intimates

I remember hearing Helen Farish read at possibly the first poetry reading I went to, in Oxford about three or four years ago – in fact, it must have been around the same time that Intimates was first published – and I recognised several of the poems, particularly the opening poem, ‘Look at These’ and the desperately beautiful ‘Newly Born Twins’.

I loved this collection. Each poem seemed perfectly formed, and to hit home so forcefully, illuminating some truth about modern existence. I loved the freshness and the simple directness that characterised each piece. I’m struggling with an Advent poem at the moment, and in contrast Farish’s work seems so incredibly unfussy and absolutely sharply honed. Brilliant stuff.

Some of the most moving poems were about the death of her father, and all sorts of final moments; I particularly loved ‘July’, with all the days of a man’s life figured as birds flocking around, or streamers unfurling (I think this was my very favourite poem in the collection). And there’s a preoccupation with female physicality, and in particular the troublesome nature of breasts – from ‘Look at these’ to fear of the possibility of cancer. In other places there’s a sense of celebration that reminded me of e.e. cummings, in particular ‘Brathay’ – ‘And all over, write, in full: / The Dazzle of this World.’ This thread of a sense of the sacrament of the ordinary and everyday continued in pieces like ‘Treasures’ and ‘Outside the Baker’s’, where ‘light you hadn’t reckoned on [is] like a blessing / you didn’t know you needed.’

So many favourites in this collection; so many, in fact, that the concept ‘favourite’ becomes a bit pointless. But here they are: ‘Auto Reply’, ‘What Held us There’, ‘Brathay’, ‘Drifts’, ‘July’, ‘Treasures’, ‘The White Gate’, ‘The Old King’s Gardens’, ‘Recording’, Grant us time to read and ponder’, ‘Outside the Baker’s’, ‘Coffin Path Poem’ and ‘Newly Born Twins’: –

In separate incubators one of the twins was dying.
Against doctor’s orders, a nurse put them together.

The strong twin, the one with nothing
pulling her back, she slung
her newly born arm over
the one who was wanting to leave,
and stabilised her heartbeat, made everything
regular in the body of the one who’d already
had enough.

The strong one, she will think
she is God, that she can pull back
life from where it was going.
It will be harder for her
than for the one who already knows
about separation, loneliness, where
they can make you want to go.

Intimates, Helen Farish (Jonathan Cape, 2005)

forty-four: Sam Meekings, The Bestiary

This was a totally brilliant collection, and I wish I’d taken notes while I was reading it, because I lent it to Poetry Andrew as soon as I’d finished it. So you’ll just have to imagine some deep and meaningful commentary from me, and then read the book yourself. It’s great.

The Bestiary, Sam Meekings (Polygon, 2008)

forty-three: Tom Pow, Dear Alice

Apologies for another late post. I’ll keep it short and sweet.

I suppose I’m still working out how I find out about poetry – so far I’ve just been following my nose, really, and reading stuff that’s come across my path. I think this week’s collection is the first time I’ve read a review in a broadsheet and then gone out and bought the poetry in question (apart from that first Alice Oswald that I talk about here.)

It was this article in The Times that got me on to Tom Pow‘s Dear Alice. I thought the subject matter in itself was intriguing enough to get hold of it: ‘the imaginative legacy of a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum, the Crichton’. In the acknowledgements Pow says that he drew his inspiration both from the documentation that still exists from the asylum and also the experience of working in the buildings (it’s now a part of Glasgow University’s campus).

I instantly liked it because of the nature of the project: a poetic testament to, even a celebration of, all who lived and worked there. By all accounts the Crichton was a humane, forward-thinking place, and this collection seems an extension of that – conferring on the place and the people an extra sense of dignity.

The whole collection also seemed quite intimately linked with the natural world – with nature, animals, time and seasons. It opens with ‘Prelude’, a beautiful thumbnail sketch of a ‘blessed morning’ – but one that sees a cat with a sparrow in its mouth, ‘its beak still / soundlessly praising the day’. Is this testimony to the muteness of those caught by mental illness? It’s an arresting image, and one that, to me, seemed to sum up the whole collection; it’s instantly taken up in the following poem, ‘Inauguration’, where a ghost of a former inmate ‘carries a sparrow jammed in his mouth’.

Pow varies his style to create a kaleidoscope of images – from the poise and elegance of ‘Nebuchadnezzar in the Arboretum by Moonlight’ to the unravelling of ‘Song for M’ and the muted accounts of various visitors to the asylum, including Tom Thumb and Freud. I appreciated the notes at the back, which give explanatory detail about some of the cases that Pow draws from, but this is such an immediate collection that even without them it would have been coherent.

Lots of favourites – although it being a beautiful, hardback edition (bravo to Salt for such a beautifully produced book) I was rather loath to make any marks in it. They were ‘Prelude’, ‘Song for M’, ‘Nebuchadnezzar in the Arboretum by Moonlight’, ‘Nightwatch, 1842’, ‘Tryst’, ‘Dear Alice’, ‘Questions of Judgement’ and ‘The Buoy-Tree’ –

Lochans of rain gathered
in the hollows, the trees
were dripping and bare.

On one, a gull landed,
spreading its wings like an angel.
It must have been a sign –

for angels are signs if nothing else.
Soon other gulls flocked there
till the whole tree was frocked

with them. Their wings beat
the water gently from them,
touching each other as you might

brush your arm against another
in a dance. It’s a wonder
you never saw it that day,

it was all there was really to see –
a tree that seemed to writhe
with light, like a buoy

on a featureless sea.
But what drew the birds there,
or set them back in flight,

is just one more thing at which
to wonder. I can only think
it was the rain that kept you away.

Dear Alice, Tom Pow (Salt Publishing, 2008)

forty-two: Michael Bartholomew-Biggs, Tell it Like it Might Be

Over the last six months or so I’ve been getting to know Mike and his wife, Nancy (and it was they who introduced me to both Mimi Khalvati and Alice Major), so it was a real treat to go to the launch party of Mike’s latest collection Tell it Like it Might Be a couple of weeks ago. It was certainly more fun than any other book launch I’ve been to; for a start, it was held at the beautiful Little Angel Theatrein Islington, which I hadn’t come across before, and we were entertained by a fantastic magician, Jonathan Dolling.

I really savoured this collection. I find Mike’s tone very measured and precise, which I love in poetry, while at the same time hinting at a certain expansiveness that, in some of my favourite pieces, brimmed over into celebration. ‘Islington Green’, for example, with its ‘little promised lands’, and the ‘fresh-picked self-respect’ of ‘Tenacious Sugarbush’ testify to the survival of little, hidden things and their flourishing against the odds. The hope that this might be so in the bodies of those we love is almost agonisingly expressed in ‘Out of Reach’ and also ‘Aviary in Dulwich Park’, which describes waiting for a child in hospital:

We snatch at straws
to weave and moss with optimism
cushioning our fledgling hopes.
Bright flowers advertise survival
and the chattering of finches
sounds like the repetition of small prayers.

And there are some scathing political pieces, too, most notably ‘Cover-up’. The notes explain that

In February 2003 the reproduction of Picasso’s painting Guernica at the UN headquarters in New York was curtained over during press briefings which followed Security Council debates on Iraq.

Other favourites were ‘The Otters Greet St Cuthbert’, ‘Stained Glass in Tudeley Church’, ‘Jairus’ and ‘Voice’. This is ‘Islington Green’:

Unlike Lincoln,
this borough does not qualify a colour
for making up heroic doublets.

A passer-through
sees patchy tarmac, sooty bricks. Graffiti
daubs the church and round its porch

religious pigeons
peck second-hand confetti; but the steeple
would scarcely have to crane its neck

to get a sight
of honeysuckle camouflaging walls
and shrubs bunched plump in sunny corners.

Ivy claims
the drainpipes, brambles clamber over fences
and nettles, if there’s nothing else,

make up the numbers
when leaves applaud the rain. Sometimes ducks
occur in unexpected places.

yet filled with little promised lands: this parish
fashions parables with offshoots

of the tree
whose roots and stems assert themselves the same
in Eden and Gethsemane.

I love the picture of leaves applauding the rain – just brilliant. Apologies for such a late post, and consequently a short one!

Tell it Like it Might Be, Michael Bartholomew-Biggs (Smokestack Books, 2008)

forty-one: Gwyneth Lewis, Parables and Faxes

Apologies for such a delayed post. It’s quite frustrating, actually, as I loved this collection and have been dying to write about it ever since I finished it, the week before last.

I first came across Gwyneth Lewis via her ‘cheerful book about depression’, Sunbathing in the Rain, which is a brilliant memoir of her own experience of the black dog, and which gave me a real appetite to go on and read her poetry. Two years later, I’ve finally read her first collection in English (a Welsh poet, she’s written alternately in Welsh and English), Parables and Faxes.

It certainly lived up to the humane, beautiful promise that was hinted at in Sunbathing in the Rain. For me, it combined a certain looseness and obliqueness – and beauty – that is what I look for in poetry, with a use of form and rhyme that gives you an ‘in’. (One thing I’ve certainly learnt from this year’s experiment is more about my own taste.)

I loved the lightness of Lewis’s tone – there’s a real playfulness alongside a sober taking in of all the beauty in the world. ‘The Hedge’ is totally brilliant in its absurdity and humour, telling the story (in terza rima) of a woman who, getting stuck in a hedge while rooting around for her stash of booze, ends up with the whole hedgerow attached to her, ‘heavy and formal as a wedding train’. There are some exquisitely surprising lines and a totally outrageous sense of flamboyance to the whole thing. I was hooked.

The two sequences ‘Illinois Idylls’ and ‘Six Poems on Nothing’ honed in, for me, on what Lewis does so well, and the vision that so captivated me: looking at the edges of things to see what’s really happening, from a landscape reforming itself after an evening of ‘disintegration’, to a pond ‘full to the brim of itself’, to the ‘good place’ that an Aunt and Uncle provide, and ‘those events that the centre ignores:’ –

small branches falling, the slow decay
of wood into humus, how a puddle’s eye
silts up slowly, till, eventually,

the birds can’t bathe there. I admire the edge;
the sides of roads where the ragwort blooms
low but exotic in the traffic fumes… (III, ‘Six Poems on Nothing’)

Like all of my favourite poets this year, Lewis has an eye for the small things, the things of a specific time and place that end up opening your eyes to a wider, timeless world. Is it a sort of humility of vision? A kind of tender observation of life that is clearsighted and neither sentimental nor cynical, finding out the beauty at the heart of things that are not especially beautiful in themselves.

And then there are the two sequences ‘Welsh Espionage’ and ‘Parables & Faxes’ (‘a saint from the east/and a saint from the west’). It’s such an amazing collection, with its eyes on language, place, wisdom, spirituality… totally compelling. Highly recommended.

Favourites were ‘The Hedge’, 5, 7, 9 and 11 from ‘Illinois Idylls’, the whole of ‘Six Poems on Nothing’, IV, V, VII, XIII and XXI from ‘Parables & Faxes’. Here is 4: Homecoming from ‘Illionis Idylls’: –

Two rivers deepening into one;
less said, more meant; a field of corn
adjusting to harvest; a battle won

by yielding; days emptied to their brim;
an autumn; a wedding; a logarithm;
self-evidence earned, a coming home

to something brand new but always known;
not doing, but being – a single noun;
now in infinity; a fortune found

in all that’s disposable; not out there, but in,
the ceremonials of light in the rain;
the power of being nothing, but sane.

I feel like I want to pin this up on my wall, as a manifesto of sorts…

Parables and Faxes, Gwyneth Lewis (1995, from Chaotic Angels: Poems in English, Bloodaxe, 2005)


I somehow didn’t manage to make the time to post about Gwyneth Lewis’s fantastic Parables and Faxes over the weekend – I’ll do that tomorrow, I promise. In the meantime, here are November’s goodies. I’ve started on the first already, and the other three have just been delivered; they look mouth-watering…

Michael Bartholomew-Biggs, Tell it Like it Might Be (Smokestack Books, 2008)
Tom Pow, Dear Alice (Salt Publishing, 2008)
Sam Meekings, The Bestiary (Polygon, 2008)
Helen Farish, Intimates (Jonathan Cape, 2005)