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forty-six: Maura Dooley, Life Under Water

Maura Dooley‘s latest collection Life Under Water has been shortlisted for the 2008 T.S. Eliot prize, which is in part why I picked it up; I was a bit uninspired trying to select my last month’s worth of poetry collections, so I thought reading a few of the shortlist was as good a way as any for making my final selection (although I still haven’t got all of December’s reading lined up).

I hadn’t read any of Dooley’s work (I don’t think) before this, and I enjoyed it. The collection has a broad horizon, with pieces mapping recent elections, lost rivers in London, the English Civil War, family life, the heart… Somehow though I look back over last week’s reading (yes, I’m late, I’m sorry) and there’s nothing particularly that grabs me or a sense of the collection as a whole that I feel I can write about. Last week was a rather depressing one, it has to be said, so maybe it’s that; or maybe it’s the weather, and getting to the end of the year. Sorry, Ms Dooley. I think it’s my fault, not yours.

Favourites were ‘Valentine’, ‘What You Will’, ‘Midsummer Lullaby’, ‘Lettered’, the shocking brilliance of ‘The Old Masters’, ‘Remark’, ‘A Tune for Dave Smith’ and this, ‘Moth Trap’, which grows on me more each time I read it: –

We looked to learn,
lit the lamp, waited
till something like a bloom
could be gathered,
its freedom tethered
by a shaft of light,

the way this lovely girl,
observing her own shadow,
holds up twelve years of life,
complicated filigree,
a thread leading home,
a rope to be cast off.

Life Under Water, Maura Dooley (Bloodaxe Books, 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.

Unpromising,
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)

November

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)

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)