Archive for the 'October' Category

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)

forty: Stewart Henderson, A Giant’s Scrapbook

This is the other book of poetry that belonged to the original unread/partly read shelf, rescued from a box of books at my folks’ house a few weeks back. Like the other, it was given to me by a family friend, when I left home I think – her handwritten note was still inside the book, which was a lovely reminder. I think I’ll write a (very belated) thank-you note.

An aside: this was published by Hodder & Stoughton, who I didn’t realise ever had a poetry list (they certainly don’t have one now). It’s an enticing thought. Was poetry just a lot more popular/widely published in the eighties?… Also, it’s a horrible cover, but perhaps that’s only to be expected…

I hadn’t heard of Henderson before, but according to the blurb he was well known in the eighties as a performance poet, performing all over the UK and much anthologised (he’s still writing and is well known for his children’s writing, his broadcasting on Radio 4 and his involvement with Greenbelt). ‘Eighties’ and ‘performance poet’ sum up what I didn’t like about this collection: I can imagine it working better live, but on the page it often read like hastily written, stream-of-consciousness prose with a few ‘poetic’ turns of phrase and lots of carriage returns. Plus quite a lot of the poems were rather self-consciously issues-based – and those issues feel rather dated almost twenty years later. Maybe it’s a question of taste – when it comes to poetry, I prefer a much more crafted type of writing, and this much freer style felt rather flat and two-dimensional compared to some of the exquisite work (Sampson, Burnside) I’ve read recently. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison? But at times I did feel disappointed – ‘Gang Rules’, for example, doesn’t follow the glorious upward trajectory promised by the second stanza, descending into banality instead (I thought). Actually I thought a lot of his last lines were a bit too obvious – hammering the point home in an way that lacked any kind of subtlety and sometimes felt a bit mawkish.

All that said, there are some lovely pieces in this book, and I enjoyed it a lot more than it sounds like from what I’ve written above. The opening section, ‘A Giant’s Scrapbook’, was probably my favourite, with some oblique, wry and poignant observations on being ‘the wrong height’. There was some brilliant, surprising and inventive language, and I’d love to hear some of this performed.

Favourites were ‘Assessing Pain’, ‘Correspondence’ and ‘First Steps’ from ‘A Giant’s Scrapbook’, ‘Being Shaved’ and ‘God gives you this day’ – where the informality of Henderson’s writing really shines (‘This giggling day/As the clouds hokey-cokey’). And this, ‘Declaration’ –

And when your voice shakes with age
as all life’s small intentions
enter their ripening slumbers
I will be with you

And when your lips anticipate the coming kiss
which will finally complete
the stretched hours of honing
I will be with you

And when your eyes
disperse once more
the tight clot of my hashed hopes
with your impossible love
I am and will be with you

A Giant’s Scrapbook, Stewart Henderson (Spire/Hodder & Stoughton, 1989)

thirty-nine: Jen Hadfield, Nigh-No-Place

I hadn’t heard of Jen Hadfield until recently (thanks to Tom this is yogic for the heads up); Nigh-No-Place is her second collection, and she’s making a name for herself, with Kathleen Jamie calling her ‘a zestful poet of the road, a beat poet of the upper latitudes’. Nigh-No-Place is certainly on the road, encompassing travels across Canada and the Shetlands – more ‘north’, more sense of space and place that I’ve enjoyed so much in other collections of poetry this year.

I have to say, though, that I was slightly disappointed; I felt that as a collection it was quite uneven in tone – I certainly found the opening few poems quite weak, not really working for me at all. It wasn’t until into the second section, ‘Nigh-No-Place’, that it felt like the poetry was finding its feet. Maybe it’s just a question of my finding her style a bit too vernacular and lumpy for my taste? This review from the Guardian sums it up well from me with the comment about lists not amounting to more than their parts in some places, but repetition working well in others:

In keeping with her taste for liturgy and litany, Hadfield’s poems are often built around repeating words and structures. Some of the anaphoric lists cannot amount to more than their parts, but elsewhere refrains work to great effect, as with ‘In the Same Way’, where the crying of the cat at the back door echoes the crying of the wind, in rounds of calling and singing, until the two become indistinguishable and we wonder whether the speaker has acquired the wind as a pet, or simply realised her cat is no pet at all.

Favourites were ‘This Is Us Saint’s Day’, ‘Prenatal Polar Bear’, ‘Towhee’, ‘Paternoster’, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen This Is a Horse as Magritte Might Paint Him’, ‘witless’, ‘Our Lady of Isbister’, ‘The Wren’, ‘Teatros’, ‘Burra Grace’, ‘Nearly a Sonnet’, ‘Bridge End, October’, ‘Cabbage’ and the poem mentioned above, ‘In the same way’:

In the same way she cries at the kitchen door
and I slip her and she runs into circular squalls of rain

and she cries at the kitchen door
with snailtracks of rain in her muscular fur
so I open up and she runs in singing

and she cries at the kitchen door
so I open up and she crouches
then sprints into the wind

and the wind cries at the kitchen door
so I open up and call and call

and she doesn’t run in but the wind does,
with rain, a squall of claws –

in the same dogged, idiomatic way
I open up, send Goodnight across the brae,

and the wind canters in
and she with a wild carol

and all the night hail
melted gleaming in her furs

Nigh-no-place, Jen Hadfield (Bloodaxe, 2008)

thirty-eight: Philip Gross, Cat’s Whisker

I was actually given Cat’s Whisker by a good friend on my seventeenth birthday, and I think I read most of it back then, if not all. But when I found it at my parents’ house a few weeks ago, I thought it would be nice to revisit it – in case I missed a couple first time round, and because I remembered liking it.

I remember three poems striking me in particular on that first reading (‘Cat’s Whisker’, ‘Baltic Amber’ and ‘Little Dancer’); this time, they still resonated, but were three precise, delicate pieces among a whole raft of poetry that absorbed me in its invitation to take an outsider’s viewpoint. So many of the pieces in this collection seemed to witness to a sense of being at the edges of things; from the child in the title poem, to the culture relegated to the borderlands of society in ‘Breton Dance’, to the crazy old ‘Stonepecker’. There seemed a particular affinity to stone: there was the sculpture in ‘Moore’, dragged reluctantly into being, and another child (presumably) spending a day at a disused quarry. And more from the realm of the eccentric and the looked down upon – a difficult mother in ‘Everything must go’, the abandoned chapel of a disappeared religious group, and a shack glimpsed from the privileged position ‘From the Fast Train’, which ‘no path leads to or from’. ‘The Ghost Trap’ was intriguing but I wasn’t quite sure where the narrative was going or if I’d really followed it.

And in all this landscape of the slightly odd, off-kilter, was a real joy in the language – so precise and so evocative. I really loved this collection; it’s a shame it’s now out of print. Favourites were ‘Baltic Amber’, ‘Moore’, ‘Questions, Questions’, ‘Two Waters’, ‘From the Fast Train’, ‘Boys Fishing’, ‘A Mercy’ and ‘Clay’. Most of all, the title poem, ‘Cat’s Whisker’:

‘Cat got your tongue?’
Go on, I though, laugh! (They did.) She
. Charmer and snake in one,
she padded in and coiled beside me.

I could talk to her,
with her lithe knowing silences,
no questions asked, only the whurr
of a finely-tuned apparatus

idling. ‘Is it true?’
I whispered. ‘You see ghosts?’ She seemed
to smile. (The again, cats always do.)
But the family’s day-long ‘atmospheres’

pained her: that slow build
and itch of static in grown-up altitudes
above my head. She flexed. Yawned. Bristled.
We were bad music to her. Yes, she knew

what wavelengths lace the air.
But how? The first twitch of her whiskers
was the sign. She’d be stroked anywhere
but there. Cat’s-whisker: the encyclopaedia

showed a crystal set, a family
bent close. Cack-rackle-hiss: a jumbling
rush of atmospherics… Then, haltingly
at first, this small voice, coming through.

Philip Gross, Cat’s Whisker (Faber and Faber, 1987)

thirty-seven: Sophie Hannah, Pessimism for Beginners

I don’t think I’d heard of Sophie Hannah before this year’s reading experiment, but over the last few months browsing poetry and bookshops I’ve come across her a lot. I gave a copy of Pessimism for Beginners to a flatmate as a birthday gift because it was a Poetry Book Society recommendation and looked fun, and when I read somewhere recently that she’s a master/mistress of contemporary rhymed poetry I thought I had to give her a go myself.

Hannah is a prolific writer – she’s published numerous collections of poetry, is a thriller/psychological crime writer and is responsible for the totally brilliant and charming recent verse translations of some of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books (my favourite is The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My).

But I’m afraid this collection left me, for the most part, rather cold. The poetry is funny, and well written, but after a while the relentless rhyme and metre began to grate on me almost as much as her themes: relationship failures and how rubbish blokes are (ok, I’m grossly simplifying, but that appeared to be the take-home message). I guess her style just isn’t much to my taste, but after the first ten or so pages I began to feel as though I’d eaten too many sherbet lemons: cloyed, with the skin of the roof of my mouth scraped off. It felt as though she only had one emotional tone: sarcastic with a hint of smug. Like the Charlie Brooker of poetry, but not as funny.

That sounds horribly harsh, but it’s just my opinion, and clearly not many other people share it. And she’s obviously accomplished. There were a few that I really, really liked: the pastiches of Milton and Herbert, ‘On Her Tiredness’ and ‘Discipline’, the world-weary ‘Living Without You’ and ‘Limited’, and the melancholy ‘In the chill’. ‘No Ball Games etc’ was probably my stand-out favourite though, with its playfulness, comedy, and the combination of acute observation and absurdity:

sign outside a London block of flats

Honestly, do we have to spell it out?
No tents, space-hoppers, orgies, Brussels sprout
enthusiasts, no sponsored squirrel fights,
no Ayurvedic quacks, no woolly tights,

no weeping for the joy you think you’re owed,
no winking at the house across the road,
dividing rainbows into seven strands
of single colour, no quick show of hands,

no pastry-cutting, origami, chess,
no taking pleasure in your own success,
no sand, no shark impressions, no culottes
no Christmas pantomimes, no liver spots,

no lurking in the shadows by the shed,
no improvised salutes, no olive bread,
no weightless floating with an auctioneer
in the small pond. No ponds. Hope that’s now clear.

Pessimism for Beginners, Sophie Hannah (Carcanet, 2007)


I do so love getting the next month’s worth of poetry, gloating over its shiny covers and promise of new discoveries. This month’s batch includes two collections (Gross and Henderson) liberated from a box of books at my parents’ house (belonging to me), so would count in the original shelf of poetry that I aimed to read this year. The other three were lovingly selected at a shop rather than online (which is what I normally do); one was a recommendation from Tom ‘This is Yogic’ (the Hadfield). I can’t wait.

Sophie Hannah, Pessimism for Beginners (Carcanet, 2007)
Philip Gross, Cat’s Whisker (Faber and Faber, 1987)
Jen Hadfield, Nigh-no-place (Bloodaxe, 2008)
Stewart Henderson, A Giant’s Scrapbook (Spire/Hodder & Stoughton, 1989)
Gwyneth Lewis, Parables and Faxes (1995, from Chaotic Angels: Poems in English, Bloodaxe, 2005)