Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe
This book is rich in ideas and emotional depth, a book by a poet adept at interlacing disparate references in order to explore the nature of cultural and gender identity.
To state that Loop of Jade is concerned with notions of belonging and displacement, of difference and universality, of the political in the personal, would not be an inaccurate observation. But it is difficult to convey how rich and complex this book is, and how entertainingly and skilfully these themes are explored.
A PhD in renaissance literature from Cambridge, Howe is able to draw upon her learning to make historical and cross-cultural connections. Many of these pieces illustrate that despite advances in technology and shifting regimes, there is little new under the sun. It is not necessary to be familiar with Howe’s references to enjoy such accomplished work. Indeed, the range and variety of the poems, from long, complex narrative pieces to impeccable metaphysical sonnets and lyrics of great delicacy, make it hard to believe this is the Howe’s first full collection.
Howe’s family lived in Hong Kong until she was eight years old, migrating to an England that had always been referred to as ‘home’ by her English father. In a piece written for Best American Poetry, Howe explains that her return to China as an adult led to a revaluation of some of her work as she attempted to reconcile her return to a place at once familiar (at least in her imagination) and strange. Howe also explains that she wanted to interweave the stories told to her by her mother, who was born in China. If this seems an ambitious goal, then Howe succeeds, approaching her subject from many angles and using her learning to great effect, wearing her knowledge as lightly as an elegant and beautifully tailored suit.
The collection opens with ‘Mother’s Jewellery box’, an exquisite imagistic poem that lets the reader know they are about to go on a journey of exploration, a search for understanding of duel-heritage conducted from a western perspective (the last line speaks of ‘whisky poured/ by morning light’). As well as an introducing one of to the central themes, it is a spellbinding scene-setter. In contrast the poem which follows ‘Crossing from Guangdong’, is written in disarmingly ‘plain’ and unadorned language.
Something sets us looking for a place.
For many minutes every day we lose
ourselves to somewhere else
Here, familiar western cultural touchstones, such as the ‘humid strains of Frank Sinatra’ become ‘unexpectedly strange’ when in a cafe in Asia, where the speakers unfamiliarity with her environment makes it difficult to decide if even ‘the single, glossy orchid’ is real. Howe is searching for traces of her mother’s earlier life, the life she has heard about, but also the place where she spent her own formative years. As the collection unfolds it becomes apparent that neither place physically exists, since the ‘strange pilgrimage to home’ will only reveal what the poet discovers and experiences in an alien culture.
The concept of ‘honouring’ the past might seem very old-fashioned, but it seems an appropriate term to apply here. By recording her mother’s (often difficult) early life with great clarity and empathy, Howe is preserving aspects of its culture, utilising her learning and craft to shed light.
‘Embalmed’ is a simultaneously fantastical and horrifying examination of the excesses of absolute power which reveals the atrocities of an emperor. But even these are put into context by a quote in which Chairman Mao chilling boasts, ‘The First Emperor? He buried alive 460 scholars. We have buried 46,000!’
‘Tame’ is both harrowing and beautiful; harrowing in that it is an uncompromising and unredeemed tale of the tradition of female infanticide and domestic abuse in a patriarchical society, and beautiful in the elegance of its execution, a fusing of fable and elements of Greek myth in which both the wife and the unwanted daughter of a woodsman respectively transform into a lychee tree and a goose. But the frequently explored trope of liberty through metamorphosis evades the young woman who, due to the ‘obligation to return’ is unable to escape her fate.
The title poem of the collection entwines a classical Chinese story, narrated by Howe’s mother, with memories of childhood ,also in the mother’s voice. This poem is multi-faceted and hypnotic, conjuring atmosphere by juxtaposing the familiar (to western readers) with the unfamiliar. The authentic and empathetic rendering of Howe’s mother’s voice is startlingly and abruptly interrupted by Howe’s interjection; ‘I can never know this place. Its scoop of rice in a chink-/ rimmed bowl, its daily thinning soup.’ Here, and elsewhere, it is almost as if Howe is expressing an irritation with her dual heritage, as if her immersion in her mother’s life, or her imagining and rendering of it, has become almost dreamlike and she has awoken to the reality of who she ‘really’ is, a young woman brought up and educated in another, very different setting. The impression of experiential distance between mother and daughter is re-enforced in the section in which the mother recalls stories in hesitant phrases marked by white space. The poem ebbs and flows between an identification so strong that it is difficult to differentiate between mother and daughter and a kind of compassionate detachment.
‘Sirens’ explores the portrayal of female sexuality in classical literature and art. Taking in Homer and Horace on its way, the poem suggests that it was in the nature of the male artist to use fish and fowl in description and depiction of women, a reflection of the male’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion.
Whilst many poems concern China, past and present, there are a host of other settings. These lines from ‘Night in Arizona’ illustrate the quality of attention that Howe brings to her work.
The last of the sheet I shuffle off an ankle
a sound like the spilling of sand
from a shovel and the night air blurs
for a second with its footfall.
There is also the magical and playful inventiveness of ‘Chinoiserie’, and the wonderful ‘Having just broken the water pitcher’ in which Howe seamlessly manages to link a Chinese monk’s koan or test question to the thoughts of a blogger in a modern-day city. There are also love poems of fierce, refined, and restrained passion and control.
For its linguistic riches and intelligent interweaving of historical tests with contemporary concerns, for the clarity and inventiveness with which ideas are pursued, for its grace and integrity, for its controlled anger and compassion, for the uncompromisingly clarity of its political positions, for all these reasons and more, I can’t recommend Loop of Jade highly enough.
A shorter version of this review was published in The Compass magazine
The River by Jane Clarke
Poems of belonging and loss
Clarke was raised on a farm in rural Ireland, and in this, her first collection, the environment and the lives of its inhabitants, both human and animal, are revisited in a series of subtle and graceful portraits. These precise, musical poems admirably avoid sentimentality while evoking lives informed by a relationship with the land and the seasons, a world that is by turns both magical and brutal.
The opening poem ‘Honey’ features a young sheepdog, ‘eyes bright, tongue lolling,’ her intelligence and developing responsiveness making her a valuable asset to Clarke’s father, the famer. This young working dog is also a family pet to dress up ‘like their teacher / in their mother’s headscarf and glasses’; however the promising position of the animal within the family’s life comes to an end when thirty ewes are discovered to have been driven into barbed wire. We are reminded with a jolt of the unpredictability and underlying ‘wildness’ of the dog and the animal’s transgression is met with a brutal and practical response dictated by age-old farming law.
Similarly, ‘Rhode Island Reds’ begins with a vivid description of farmyard chickens, handsome ‘Haughty empresses of the byroad’ who perform, rather wonderfully ‘flamenco flounces’. The ‘hands on’ nature of farming and the utilitarian purpose of the birds is, however, brought home to an on-looking child when her mother deftly wrings one’s neck.
‘Daily Bread’ conveys the diligence, concentration and physical effort invested by a woman who is making bread. ‘ Blue veins lie like rivers on the map of her hands’ and she ‘flicks a lock, silver-grey frost / in December, from her high cheek bones’ before cutting a ‘deep cross’ in the dough. This symbol, and the title of the poem, places the woman’s work in a wider cultural context, and the beauty of the description enhances the sense of there being a transcendent spiritual dimension to this everyday task.
This connection between hard work and spirituality is made explicit in ‘The Blue Bible’ in which children take turns to choose stories for their father to read aloud. The bible, with pictures beside each story and ‘sticking plaster along its spine’, maintains an almost naive purity and relevance to the family, being full of stories ‘for people who worked the soil, watched over flocks of sheep.’ Later, in the penultimate poem in the collection, ‘Sing’, Clarke celebrates her early uncomplicated relationship with faith, recalling winter nights where the stove in the church offered ‘a smidgeon of heat, / candlelight soft on the bible’, and she concludes by encouraging her present day self to ‘Let yourself sing, diminuendo / or crescendo, as if you still believed.’
In ‘Harness Room’ the poet asks herself why she has always loved the room in question; ‘Is it for the naming of things: the clippers / and shears, the grape and the rake stacked at the hearth with shovels and spades.’ It is impossible, given the location and self-confessed delight in this ‘naming of things’, not to think of Seamus Heaney. Like Heaney, the specific language of agricultural objects allows the reader, however removed from contact with such tools, to understand something of the diversity and complexity of farming work, to gain some notion of the myriad crafts and skills required by people living a rural life. Clarke’s poems do not suffer from comparison with the master; rather, her touch is so fine and her handling of her material so light, assured and balanced, that she moves beyond the family portraits of Heaney’s early work to convey a deep sense of dedication and devotion required to live on and with the land. In this way the work of the people in these portraits can be viewed as definitions of care and manifestations of love.
In ‘The Suck’, a name whose potential for ambiguous interpretation no poet could miss, the river represents a paternal or maternal entity, or perhaps a benign deity, a place of retreat and solace, of literal and internal reflection, a place where, most often alone ‘ we’d go to talk or cry or be quiet / in the company of the current’ , but also, tellingly, where ‘We could dream of leaving, making lives of our own, ask the river to bless us, let us go.’
As a motif for both leaving and loss, of stasis and escape, consistency and change, Clarke’s river serves many purposes. While she celebrates and preserves her upbringing in elegiac, tender love poems to family, she also records their idiosyncrasies and stubbornness and acknowledges, in poems of painful intimacy, that lives lived in such a landscape can stagnate and become trapped and that change in such a place can often be slow in coming.
In ‘The Globe’ there are not enough desks in the one-roomed schoolhouse for the all the boys in her father’s class to all sit down. The globe in question, present during his schooldays, continues to be used during Clarke’s own time at school, its obsolete names,
Rhodesia, Ceylon, Abyssinia, Siam
where missionaries from the parish
have gone to save souls
poignantly and economically highlighting the sense of a place left behind in a colonial past, a place that still encourages children to aspire to missionary work in countries long since altered by the demise of empire.
Political and ecological themes are explored, overtly in ‘Who owns the field?, a direct and highly effective modern take on a folk ballad, and, more obliquely in ‘The Catch’, in which the speaker is awestruck by a box of moths that have been captured in her garden. The perfectly pitched description of their strangeness and variety serves as an unarguable case for preservation of these delicate creatures.
‘White Fields’ is an economical study in how a man and wife can experience a loss of intimacy, their failure to articulate emotions leading to avoidance and an atmosphere of disappointment. In ‘The Suitcase’ a poem in which ‘despair was a neighbour / of love’ currents of desperation and of entrapment flow close to the surface.
‘When I knew’, with its
rowan in the forest
thrown backwards in an out of season storm,
roots loosened, buds opening, its latticed
branches spread wide, leaves ready to unfurl’
has a dexterity worthy of Kathleen Jamie, another poet whose skill in utilising nature’s sometimes unexpected ferocity allows her readers space to make their own resonant connections between nature’s changes and our own.
Clarke is also interested in question of real or true value; of monetary worth set against emotional connection, of the riches to be found in experience as opposed to the scarce solace in the face of loss offered by material goods. In the heart-breaking ‘all I will need’ a mother, who has begun to ‘number her days’ asks her daughter to choose
from her pieces of silver
as if all I will need
beneath a linen cloth
in the sideboard drawer.
This book, firmly rooted in Ireland’s cultural and physical landscape, will no doubt fit into that country’s poetic tradition so seamlessly as to seem to have always been there. But Clarke’s sensitive handling of universal experiences make this a collection with wide appeal. It is humbling to read work which so directly and carefully addresses and untangles the experience of loving and loss, of belonging to a place and of moving on. In acknowledging that we can’t go home again, Clarke also articulates how our beginnings inform our present, and that home is something we carry within us. In preserving and making sense of her own home and of the experience of leaving, Clarke has written a book of profound and enduring beauty.
Thanks to ‘The Compass’ , where a version of this review first appeared.
Black Country by Liz Berry
There are references to ‘black’, ‘coal’, ‘dark’ ‘darkness’ and ‘dusk’ in most of the poems in this collection. But this is various and multifaceted darkness.
In the opening poem, ‘Bird’, in the moment of transformation into a bird, a moment of transcendence, the speaker’s voice becomes
‘no longer words but song black upon black’.
It is fascinating that the song here is black rather than, for example, white or silver to contrast with the world from which it arises. This suggests that the poet is singing of and from the black; that she is so much a part of it as to be inseparable from the darkness of her midlands homeland even as she rises up from it.
This is Berry’s mission statement – to sing and celebrate the darkness of her Black Country, in its many manifestations, a darkness that harbours the hard lives of the people from across the centuries that saw the heyday of industrial revolution and the subsequent demise of its industries.
In ‘Nailmaking’ a new black hammer awaits a girl who is newlywed to a nail maker. But in other poems darkness also provides refuge, intimacy, sex and comfort. Above all it is the backdrop to contrast against the white of clouds, bones, feathers, and to the pale of a silver birch. It is a darkness emblazoned with the searing colour of a blacksmiths furnace, of crimson shoes and the oysters that ‘clem their lips upon pearls in the muck’ (The Sea of Talk).
In poem after poem Berry’s imagery casts an ‘astonishing ring of brightness’, (The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls) a brightness that is all the more astonishing for being set against the dark.
Birds appear throughout. It is not unusual for birds to provide symbols of transcendence and escape. But, like the darkness, Berry’s birds are vehicles for multiple ideas and emotions. In ‘Birmingham Roller’ several aspects of this collection combine. The homing pigeon of the title is addressed with great tenderness in the dialect of Black Country by its keeper.
Little acrobat of the terraces,
we’m winged when we gaze at you
jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting through
the white- breathed payer of January
You don’t have to know the meaning of the dialect words to appreciate the richness of this language, and many of these words are guessable, but there are well placed footnotes at the bottom of the pages where they feature.
Scots has long been celebrated and kept vital by contemporary poetry, and here Berry succeeds in breathing life into her own region’s dialect and revealing its quirkiness, individuality and beauty. It is an act of celebration, of reclamation and of preservation which feels like a gift to the reader rather than the bombastic statement of pride it may have become in the hands of a less sensitive and skillful writer.
Berry’s loving relationship with her landscape and language allows room for ambiguity and does not prevent her from detailing its derelict factories and closed pits where a ‘wingless Pegasus’ appeared (Black Country) and
Old men/ knelt to breathe the smoke of its mane, whisper in its ear, walked away in silence, fists clenched faces streaked with tears
In ‘The Red Shoes’ the moralistic ending of the classic tale is subverted. In Berry’s retelling the girl out dances the axe until ‘the sun laid the sky down, crimson at my feet.’ Similarly ‘Sow’,( perhaps a relative of Jo Shappcott’s ‘Mad Cow’,) subverts notations of received femininity to celebrate sexual appetite via a joyful and luxuriant wallow in dialect. Fat is still a feminist issue.
‘Christmas Eve’ reminded me of a Black Country version of the introduction to ‘Under Milk Wood’ for its descriptive power and skilful lyricism. Sleet is
‘blowing in drifts from the pit banks,
over the brown ribbon of the cut, over Beacon Hill,
through the lap-loved chimneys of the factories.
Sleet is tumbling into the lap of the plastercast Mary
by the manger at St Jude’ s, her face gorgeous and naïve
as the last Bilston carnival queen.
In this poem Berry, like Thomas, is tender and generous and benevolent in voicing the dreams despair and mundane realities of her characters. She is also highly convincing in evoking the lives of the people who populate her poems, and it is no surprise to find that ‘Darling Blue Eyes’ was written using extracts from her grand-parents’ wartime letters.
In places, Berry’s romanticism and passionate interest in the past, (not to mention the fluidity, control and richness of her writing) make these poems seem closer to Anne Bronte, Blake or Dante Rossetti than to the ironic approach of much contemporary poetry.’ The Black Country’ contains poems of emotional and spiritual depth; there is a willingness to engage with ideas and emotions which seems to have much in common with poetics of the past.
But whilst envisioning and invigorating the past, many of Berry’s concerns are utterly and pressingly contemporary. The feminist themes and portrayal of economic depression are still depressingly relevant.
In ‘When I was a Boy’, ‘Trucker’s Mate’, ‘Fishwife’ and several other poems, Berry explores gender roles along with the sensual and sexual. Again Berry’s explorations are multi-faceted, moving from the celebratory to the disturbing. In ‘The Silver Birch’ Berry manages to convey the mystery and newness of burgeoning sexuality. ‘Woodkeeper’ is an unbelievably sensual poem.
There is another surprise here – the use of biblical language, some of which is recognisable as the sort of language still current in English primary schools where bible stories are read to infants and hymns and carols are sung. In ‘The First Path’ foxes bark ‘alleliua. ’In ‘Owl’ the cattle are lowing. In ‘The Assumption’ ‘that daydream picture of Christ the Lamb,’ appears.
These images contrast starkly with the dark violence and Victorian gothic horror of poems like ‘The Black Delph Bride’ and ‘The Bone Orchard Wench’.
I must briefly mention of Berry’s humour. It is present in ‘Carmella’, a celebration of ‘Our Lady of The Hairdressers’, her staff and clientele, but is also present here and there in a turn colloquial phrase, and in the primary school teacher’s description of her classes activities in the wonderful ‘Miss Berry’.
Black Country is impressively coherent, passionate and accomplished. Berry is a Maestra – (I had to look this word up- a less familiar word than ‘maestro’, since female conductors have only appeared relatively recently) at linking poems and exploring the many facets of her chosen subjects.
I recently read an interview somewhere (I can’t find the link now) where Liz Berry speaks of her love of ‘wildness’ in poetry. These poems are wild in their ambition, diversity and surprise, but they are also meticulously crafted so that her flights and swoops are as controlled, balanced and bold as that ‘little acrobat’ the homing Birmingham Roller.
This is a book rooted in real places and real people. It is sung on the wing. It is classy, classic poetry.
The Escape Artists by Ben Parker– tall lighthouse.
Review first published In Antiphon magazine.
This is a very assured debut from Ben Parker. There is a unity of style and theme throughout, a feeling that a keen intelligence has been at work. There is a ‘rightness’ to the cadences and structures that makes these poems exceptionally sure footed. There is also an impressive attention to the sounds of words and a seamless suitability of form to content. This level of craft and apparent ease only comes about, regardless of ‘talent’ or ‘natural ability’, via a lot of study and hard work.
The opening poem sets the tone. Parker addresses the reader ‘Do you remember that day we found the first horse?’ We are drawn in to the mystery and potential magic of this narrative, but quickly experience the disconcerting mixture of disorientation and familiarity that pervades the collection.
The poem proceeds to describe this ‘first horse’, and we become aware that the animal is in fact a dog. This miss-labelling and the continued refusal of the deluded couple in the poem to believe the corrective comments of friends, a vet, and even the evidence of their own eyes, is disturbing and sinister.
Here, in the ‘welcome mat’ poem of the collection, we encounter an unreliable narrator who clings to a misconception, to an imposed identity which conflicts and disconnects him from ‘reality’. Ultimately, this leads to unhappiness and isolation for both humans and animal. The use of the first person in this poem serves to create an unwanted intimacy, coupled as it is, with the unease brought about by the strangeness of the narrative.
This is a darkly lit collection. There are lots of clouds and a lot of rain. Parkers’ themes are dislocation, isolation and metamorphosis. He also writes well on the fragility and unreliability of surfaces, both literal and metaphorical, through which the unsuspecting can fall.
Emotions such as loss, grief, and confusion are not addressed directly but submerged in narratives which blend the surreal and familiar, the mythic and mundane, to create a menacing hybrid reality, a non-specific landscape with enough familiar landmarks to keep the reader suspended between recognition and disorientation.
In ‘Sideshow,’ the protagonist wanders through a circus where ‘Pipes play on/though there is no-one around to hear them.’ On the surface this eerie setting is littered with images from a ‘fun’ fair or carnival, a place of pleasure and escape through controlled illusion. But there is dark humour and a strong undercurrent of menace in this poem; ‘The strong-man sleeps in a fug of beer, the dwarves dream of Hollywood’. The narrator ‘checks a map/ he doesn’t have’ and is ultimately lost in a claustrophobic and recurring night-mare.
‘The Path’ has a sense of unresolved mystery, and like many of the poems here, it is otherworldly, elusive and haunting. ‘The Way’ might serve to sum up many of the characteristics of this collection. The village is ‘rain-shuttered’ the radio is tuned to ‘dead melodies’ the road ahead is ‘dwindling’.
‘Remembrances’ is, at first glance, a short romantic piece, and contains my favourite line in the collection.
‘and on the floor those intimate blacks and reds like crumpled flowers, lying where they fell.’
But rather than being simply a celebration of lovers’ intimacy, typically for Parker, the speaker is tainted by insecurity. The poem ends on an anxious and almost desperate note; ‘No sooner has the door clicked to/ than I begin my search from room to room.’
In ‘From Histories I’ Parker utilises an oblique approach, perhaps to comment on recent conquest and conflict, and invokes a farcical world of unreliable propaganda and bizarre heresy. The poem ends with a mix of myth and obscure and tawdry commerce in which ‘the gods/ walked the markets, selling charms/ for a low price and without obligation.’
Similarly, ‘From the Histories II’ which concludes the collection, cynically highlights the absurd. The targets in this case are notions of the heritage and the glorification of a drunken warrior whose wives and daughters ‘stuff their ears with wax/ and develop intricate sign-language/ for which their line is justly remembered.’
‘The Restaurant’ , in which ‘Most of the walls are black with the juice/ of berries imported for just this purpose’ is a satire on the more extreme pretentions of the modern fine dining experience. It achieves its goal by evoking an environment full of well-chosen peculiarities to create a portrait both ridiculous and sinister. Those interested in this sort of absurdist piece, and particularly in the investigation of food and its variety and associated meanings, should check out the poetry of Anthony Rowland, a master of this type of poem and possibly someone Parker is aware of. I detect positive echoes of Rowland’s work in this and in the title poem of the collection which has the density, implied historical perspective and fine control of the senior poet, and as in Rowland’s work, rewards repeated reading.
Parker skilfully evokes a world where nothing is as it seems. However, the cumulative effect of this collection is almost unremittingly bleak. I found myself longing for a break from the subdued tension, the ominous and confusing locations, and from the metaphorical and literal heavy weather.
The beautifully accomplished ‘Painting Your Voice’ provides an exception. It is one of the few poems here to come to some sort of conclusion that isn’t loaded with threat. Although here too, we find rain, the tone of this elegantly flowing poem is metaphysical and transcendent. The ‘voice’ of a lover is carried and transformed by weather and in this case ‘The heat will lift it up/ and over mountains it will fall as rain.’ This effect is all the more powerful due to the subtlety and constraint of writing which is not overwrought or excited, but subdued, observant, and controlled.
I would like to see Parker’s ‘stacks of clouds’ broken, if only in places, by the occasional shaft of reliable sun-light. I can’t help wondering what colour and vibrancy a spell on a Greek island, for instance, might bring to the work of this accomplished young poet.
Like his first collection ‘The Land of Green Ginger’ (Salt, 2008), many of these poems are rich in culinary and gastronomic language.
Rowland has a deep understanding of how food can be used to explore themes of national, regional and class identity. He also understands the central position that food holds in all our lives, and its importance as a normalizing factor, a potential source of refuge and comfort, as in this stanza from ‘Arras’. ‘Chocolate gift before the fighting patrol/: it feels like you are holding the whole Front/with a lost bolt. Three weeks is the average death/. Instead, have a do at this cake on the grass.’
In the opening poem, ‘Berlin’, a sign advertising Ice Cream peeps through Eisenmann’s Memorial and the speaker feels too uncomfortable with his own tourist status amongst such landmarks to settle for ‘café patter that holds the roll/ above unguilty pleasures, bullet pocks.’
Rowland is on a mission to use words that normally only reside in dictionaries. The appearance of ‘discombobulate’ in a description of unwrapping sandwiches is perhaps a mouthful too far, but it is an example of Rowland’s ambition to fully utilise language, and not just English but a whole range of European words. I would have liked this poem and several others in the collection to have had footnote translations.
This aside, the unease of a tourist surrounded by physical reminders of horrific historical events is evoked here, and again in the deft and effecting ‘Serchio Bathing Party’ which details a tour of the house in which Holocaust survivor Primo Levi committed suicide . The tour is contrasted against later experiences the same day including the delights of a plunge pool, a gelato hatch and the Po’s ‘Olympian serenity’.
Similarly, ‘The Fuhrerhauser’ is a journey through Soviet and Nazi landmarks including Birkenau. In clipped three line stanzas, observations of the banal mix with the horrific to evoke the incongruence at being tourist among remnants which stand testament to unfathomable inhumanity. This sequence is well placed at the end of the collection where it remains likes a monument in an empty landscape.
‘Bitter’ celebrates and mocks a variety of Real Ales. Some of the beers speak for themselves in a masterful blend of overblown advertising and bawdy language. Wordy mouthfuls beg to be relished aloud, my favourite being ‘Oban’s Fair Plugged wants frottage with a Cornish’. There is another dimension in the remembrance of a less sophisticated drinking culture ‘where Tetley glasses used to sail the air/changing the channel to random violence.’ This is Rowland at his funniest and most poignant, switching quickly from humour to grim unsentimental realities in one fluid journey.
In ‘Sausage’ we disturbingly find ‘the sausages that glitter in the Somme moonlight’, and ‘Arras’ contains the sort of absurdly comical anecdote that is passed down through a family by word of mouth; ‘Someone shot the brigadier’s dog in no-man’s land:/no password.’ And ‘Your keys to the door arrive in a trench/with two birthday cards in bits: birthdays/would gift the enemy information.
The sheer inventiveness of much of this book kept me engaged, entertained and rewarded. If I were to be negative I would say I had too much on my plate with ‘Engrish’ (there are two poems with this title in the collection) which seemed over long. Then there are several ‘Hotel’ poems, surreal ‘Tripadvisor’ style accounts which I found a bit too thematically and technically similar to all merit inclusion.
On the whole Rowland succeeds brilliantly in bringing a surprising mix of ingredients together in a celebration of language. This is a big book in more ways than one. Not everything here was to my taste, but there are enough exquisite and memorable dishes to make this the equivalent of a Michelin star experience.
I am a Magenta Stick is published by Salt, 2012.
The contemporary poetry anthology seems to be in rude good health. There are anthologies based on ‘new generations’ of poets, poets under thirty, anthologies to showcase or create a school or genre. Others, like the Forward, gather prize winners and well established poets. Still others try to counterbalance these by presenting the ‘best’ poems from small presses in any given year; many are enjoyable and some are useful, for example, in bringing new voices to the fore.
But few feel ‘necessary’, or give the impression of being able to stand the test of time. Fewer still could be given out in a pub, to be understood and enjoyed by the recipients. I suspect that ‘Versions of The North’ could.
Subtitled ‘contemporary Yorkshire poetry’, this is an anthology from Five Leaves Press edited by Ian Parks. Paradoxically, given its stated geographical borders, the one hundred and forty-seven pages of poems cover a huge variety of themes and gather a multiplicity of voices to celebrate and reflect upon the physical, historical, political, geographical and emotional landscapes of the north of England.
This is a generous book in more ways than one. Ian Parks defines Yorkshire Poetry in the introduction as ‘poetry written by poets with a strong connection to Yorkshire either by birth or close association.’
Major strengths are that poems by deceased poets and sit alongside work by rising stars like Helen Mort and David Tait, and that the ‘celebrated’ sit beside the ‘overlooked’ or less well know. A democratic accessibility is at the heart of this collection; I was originally going to title this review ‘A new republic of the head and heart,’ a line borrowed and adapted from a poem by Ian Parks.
But the inclusively and accessibility of this collection doesn’t mean the book isn’t full of surprise, confrontation, celebration, grief, humour and moments of astonishing beauty.
The opener is the wonderfully inventive and assured ‘Frost-Gods’ by the late Harold Massingham. Within three lines the reader is located in a landscape where there is ‘Frost-flack over these collieries.’ We are also located in language at once direct and inventive, no-nonsense and dour, exhilaratingly vivacious and to quote the poem, ‘energied with Reverie.’ There is a self-knowing and perhaps humorously deployed line about surveying a post industrial landscape, and it might stand for much of what this book is about ; ‘I look it over, warming/ To that grim aura:’
Throughout the collection I encountered, and warmed to, the geography of old-mill workings and slag heaps, the ghosts of heavy industry, the echo and sometimes physical reminders of territorial and political battles, the landscapes of moors and crags as well as great cathedrals, tea shops, rivers and the sea, all described by a spectrum of distinctively individual but collectively ‘northern’ voices.
These lines from Maurice Rutherford’s ‘Outlook on Monday’ put me in mind of Les Dawson’s housewife in a pinafore, arms folded, alert and primed for gossip. ‘A neighbour swabs her doorstep/the clothesline a farcical can-can/incontinence knickers in chorus/high-kicking out of time.’ Dawson’s characters were archetypes, but they were recognisable and loveable ones, and his portrayal of stereotypes was never malicious. The same can be said of the many characters that inhabit this book.
George Kendrick finds cause to celebrate a bicycle tyre in a tree, and this highlights a key aspect of this collection, namely a lack of obscurity, an absence of the deliberately ‘clever’, the flashy or brash. Most of, if not all the poems, are written using ‘everyday’ language, and many refuse to be tided or clipped into neatness, but maintain the expansiveness of real speech; perhaps Les Murray’s antipodean ‘Quality of Sprawl’ has its equivalent in northern England. This anthology serves to remind the reader how richly expressive and elegant everyday English can be.
Together with explorations of the seemingly ordinary, there is much bravery in dealing with big themes. This anthology doesn’t shy away from conflict, whether it is the bitter confrontation of the miner’s strike or issues of identity, class and race. Nor is there any trace of a simple romantic view of long gone industries. Instead there is ambiguity in poems which deal with this loss, an acknowledgement that whilst these industries provided livelihoods and a sense of community, they also laid scars across the land and the lives of many of its inhabitants.
Glyn Hughes ‘Rock Rose’ is a celebration of the reclamation of the land by nature; ‘Hammer and Chisel, ledger and pen,/cradle and loom are rested/ hewn stone is overgrown or sweetened.’
Those who were lucky enough to have known the late Ann Atkinson will be particularly moved by her poem ‘Petrifying Well,’ in which Ann seems to be expressing acknowledgement of the passing of all things.
There are far too many standout poems to mention here, but the delightful invention and controlled rage and humour of Ian Duhig is well represented by his five poems, as is the masterful control of Pat Borthwick in ‘It’s Only’, a tour de force in which she sardonically shines light on the dull waters of the Humber and uncovers a dinosaur’s scaphoid (or does she?)among the brickwork and slack on the foreshore. There is a lot of weather in this book; inevitably rain and snow, but also sunshine, notably in Jules Smith’s poem ‘The Barefoot Bride’.
Elsewhere Ann Sansom sings the hymn of a humble slug, while Paul Mills captures the power of nature on a different scale in ‘At the Lake House’ ; ‘Stronger than love/ is stone’s connection with water./Anchored and fluid among the peaks/ they sculpt each other with force, with likeness, with nearness’. Another stand out poem is Graham Hamilton’s heartbreakingly beautiful tale of salmon and his reflection of changes in the lives of the men who fish and fished them.
I know that editor Ian Parks had to persuaded into including two of his own poems by a delegation of the anthologised poets. This comes as no surprise since self-promotion doesn’t seem to be Ian’s priority. But his own ‘Strikebreakers’ is an essential part of the picture, containing a line which conjures a state of civil war in which ‘ the mounted men broke through’. In this remembrance there is a chilling sense of the inescapable and inevitable legacy of such a bitter division and conflict. This is followed by Ed Reiss biblical take on un-forgiven scabs. In different ways both poems perform the difficult task of describing the detail and legacy of such battles without becoming overtly polemical.
This is not a mono-cultural anthology; Liz Cashdan, Debjani Chatterjee and Ian Duhig among others remind us of the history of migration and the variety of Yorkshire voices and experiences. But I would have liked to see a few more voices springing from differing ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps with the passage of time these voices might come to the fore. This small point aside, Ian Parks has selected and sequenced these poems to create an enduring map of a past and present Yorkshire as seen and described by several generations of its children. That he has succeeded in his ambition is testament to the sheer quality and variety of the poems.