Editor’s Choice 14

In his pamplet The Man Who Wasn’t Ever Here, Michael Bartholomew-Biggs pieces together the life of an elusive grandfather, using limited documentation and ample imagination. In the telling of this tale, the poet blends the historical with the contemporary.

The grandfather originates from Ireland, but his nationality becomes hidden by a misspelt name and inaccurate records. Nonetheless the poet’s researches into this Irish immigrant brings him to the ‘Irish Question’.

Irish Question
Canary Wharf, 9 February 1996

The ripple skipped across the capital,
vandalising like a naughty child
but, tiring in a mile or two, did little
more than agitate our patio windchimes.

Actually that carillon came first
before the thud that kicked the floor and raised
for one of us a question in dynamics:
what sort of shock-wave shook the Chinese bells?

I’m at the outside edge of this explosion.
Nothing’s primed me, packed down powdered grudge;
and I don’t know the deep slow burn of peat
or the winding length of memory’s fuse.

Grandad Thomas took a shorter view
and made his exit. Did he come here
half-intending to confront the landlord
or simply crossing to the other side?

 What I appreciate here is the way the narrative voice calmly describes being on the edge of a sudden violent historic event without initially being aware of what was happening to the ordinariness of life as the patio windchimes shook and the floor thudded. The matter-of-fact language and playing down of any drama is reinforced by the opening of the second stanza with the word ‘Actually’, then there’s a nice turn with the slightly detached ‘question in dynamics’ before the third stanza grasps deeper matters.

‘I’m at the outside edge of this explosion.’ seems to me to insert a clever and double frame. Literally outside edge, as described in the first stanza, yes; but also in terms of the poet’s roots and the Irish part of his inheritance. And then we have the loaded language of the stanza’s second line with ‘primed’ and ‘packed-down powdered grudge’, and the carefully chosen images of ‘the deep slow burn of peat’ and ‘memory’s fuse’.

The final stanza steps back to consider the much wider question of the ambiguities and conflicts within the treacherous history of the relationship between the British and Irish. The enigmatic figure of ‘Grandad Thomas’ is a sort of cipher for this. The fact is even if it can never be known what potential allegiance and intent lies within the psyche of the emigrant, the fact of his origin begs the question. And that word ‘half-intending’ suggests that maybe he might have been unsure himself.

This is a poem which, in four four line stanzas manages to cover a lot of ground with economy and carefully chosen words and images, each stanza making its own discrete contribution to the way the Canary Wharf bomb sends shock-waves out and back…

…and forwards, since three pages later another poem, Blood Lines, answers the poet’s question with more questions, demonstrating the difficulty of seeking a connection with the past through the culture of the present.

 

Blood Lines
Kiltyclogher, 1998

 It’s that quart of blood again:
its need to feel important brought me here
and hopes my genes will twitch like iron filings
near a magnet when they sense a pull
from north to south across the border.

 The statue of the patriot MacDiarmada
looks south along the road towards his cottage –
which is closed today. A scribbled note says
The key is at the farm house down the lane.
Which way is down? More ambiguity:
what turns a partisan into a terrorist
or makes an automatic hero of a martyr?
Who says an emigrant’s a runaway or traitor?

I’d like to claim that – like my blood-inheritance –
some freedom-struggle rhetoric still flows
in Irish lilting syllables, unstrangled
by capillaries of English self-control.
As yet, my words can’t manage to take sides.

 

 

Editor’s choice 13

Jean Harrison’s The Tilt evokes her time teaching in post-colonial Ghana and returning later to experience the changes that have taken place. What I was particularly struck by is her clear-eyed ability to describe and address the complex relationship between the former colonial culture and attitudes and the lives of indigenous Ghanaians.

A poem in which does this most effectively is To get rid of the snowdrop. About this poem, Steve Whitaker, Literature correspondent of The Yorkshire Times, says: “Taking her place in a hierarchy which automatically elevated Europeans to the upper echelons of the Ghanaian teaching profession, the liberally progressive Englishwoman opens several paradoxical locks in one vignette.”

To get rid of the snowdrop
      It is the calm and silent water that drowns a man

 A European winter
spread its chill across both parties –

us, the ‘white, imported experts’,
you, each one the pick of a generation

too early to have had a chance of a degree,
teaching now in your old school.

We were in love with ‘relevance’, avid
to heave Henry VIII out of the syllabus,

rid biology of the snowdrop, an exotic
whose attributes you’d learned by heart

and loved as proof
all human brains are equally good

or better here, where frost and snow mean nothing
and yet you could describe that flower.

You taught younger forms, we polished exam groups,
students who aimed never to come back,

or if they did
to take our places, not yours,

who’d never been asked to morning coffee
in the Head’s bungalow. They wouldn’t feel easy

 mixing with their former teachers, words
never spoken directly for contradiction,

sinking underground,
pushing up shoots.

When a new regime
moved break to the staffroom, you, and we,

still gathered in clumps of our own kind,
reserved and cool.

The writing here seems so succinct, so concerned with the point it is making. The focused style and tone does not, however, compromise the poem’s craft, but in fact is part of it. For example the first three couplets form a single sentence, in which the reader is immediately aware of the main tensions, while the European winter and ‘white imported experts’ prefigure the snowdrop imagery. The lines are well-judged with breaks true to the rhythms of natural speech.

Then follows what feels like the second section of four couplets, once again a single sentence packing a great deal of information and punch. Here we meet the snowdrop and grasp the ambiguity – its significance and irrelevance. And then there’s the quiet irony of the final couplet of this sentence, that perhaps understanding something beyond one’s experience is a sign of the human brain being ‘better here’.

The last section of the poem tackles the dynamics, the ‘them and us’and extends the snowdrop metaphor with ‘sinking underground/pushing up roots’ and the groups in the staffroom ‘gathered in clumps’. The narrator’s sympathetic attitude remains, nonetheless, clear-eyed, guiding us through entrenched attitudes to the uncomfortable concluding reality.

Jean uses Ashanti proverbs as epigraphs to some of the poems. In this one it feels to me that in terms of Ghanaian culture, it could be that hang-overs from colonialism are ‘the calm and silent water’.

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice 12

Pauline Yarwood’s pamphlet ‘Image Junkie’ is full of accomplished and energetic poems. I’ve chosen this one because it’s great fun with its mixture of mischief and menace and also demonstrates a certain brio present in much of Pauline’s writing. The fact that it’s set in a supermarket check-out queue, a relatively ordinary and safe place, underlines the slightly unnerving nature of the encounter. I enjoy the way the poem plays with the reader’s emotions, just as the protagonist plays with the innocent shopper’s emotions. The writing has a natural energy making the voice sound authentic despite the fact the situation is out of the ordinary.

*

Basking Shark

I’m all mouth, a mega-mouth, an over-confider,
I want to tell you everything. I want to talk.
I hunt in supermarkets, bask in surface warmth,
and feed on conversation.
I have a bag of apples and a packet of biscuits,
and a woman tells me to go first, I don’t have much,
but I’m not in a hurry and I’ve nowhere to go.
She steps back from my drabness and unwashed hair
and looks at me as though my brain’s no bigger than a peach.
You can pay for these if you like,
and I hold out my shopping over her trolley.
There’s panic in her eyes, and I reel her in.
She’s in over-drive. She thinks she should pay,
she knows she could, she’d hardly notice it,
but then maybe I do this all the time, it’s begging really,
but she thinks she should, and I have her.
I tell her I’m a real Polly Garter, no better than I should be
and isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God,
and she gets the reference and off we go on Dylan Thomas,
touch on Heaney, Motion, O’Donoghue,
and I tell her about Marcus Aurelius advising us to avoid
talkativeness but that I think that’s rubbish advice and
I can talk to an empty bus seat if there’s no-one there to fill it.
I tell her I’m a mega-mouth and she could swim inside and out again
if I could keep it open long enough, or I could swallow her whole.

*

The title seems ideal. For although a basking shark is in fact harmless, by its size it nonetheless can cause alarm, ‘that roomsized monster with a matchbox brain’ as Norman McCaig puts it in his poem Basking Shark.

The way this poem opens immediately pulls me in, that in-your-face confessional. And the description does reflect the actual features of a basking shark, with its enormous mouth and tendency to cruise and feed near the surface.

Then we’re quickly into the detail, a bag of apples and a packet of biscuits, and the awkward interaction between the two women. I enjoy the way the shark registers the look of disdain and reserve of the other woman, the projected judgements of ‘drabness and unwashed hair’, the ‘brain no bigger than a peach’ and uses this in a quite predatory way, remaining in total control of the situation, exploiting it until that satisfied ‘I have her.’ The fish doing the fishing.

The discomfort of the situation takes a lighter turn with the lovely Polly Garter reference and as a reader I’m relieved and able to relax. Or am I? The pace of the poem charges on and the by now disarming shark retains all the power in the situation. Never mind the poor hapless shopper, this mega-mouth could indeed swallow me, the reader, whole.

 

 

 

Wayleavers News

Hannah Hodgson (Dear Body) was blogger in residence at Kendal Poetry Festival from 6th to 9th September. You can read her blogs, 5 minute interviews with poets and her festival report at http://www.kendalpoetryfestival.co.uk/news/

Hannah also gave one of her powerful short readings which boosted sales of her pamphlet.
An excellent event. Friendly, communal, serious fun and quality readers.
*
Ron Scowcroft (Moon Garden), Rebecca Bilkau (Choosing New Omens) and Pauline Yarwood (Image Junkie) will be reading at The Waterside Café, Kent View, Kendal on Thursday 25th October at 7.30 pm. This will be a reading in aid of Springfield Refuge Domestic Support in South Lakeland.
*
Jane Routh (The White Silence) has a fourth full collection, Listening to the Night (from smith|doorstop) coming out in October/November. She will be giving a reading at Ripon Poetry Festival on Sunday October 14th, 12-1pm, and will officially launch the collection on Saturday 27th October at The Quaker Meeting House, Meeting House Lane, Lancaster, doors open 7.00 for 7.30 start.

She will be accompanied by Mike Barlow (Promise Boat) who will be launching his new pamphlet Some Kind of Ghost (New Walk Editions). Mike will also be reading from this new pamphlet at the publisher’s launch at The Attenborough Arts Centre, Lancaster Road, Leicester on Friday 9th November, 7.00pm start. He will read alongside Moniza Alvi who will also be launching her pamphlet from New Walk Editions.

Editor’s Choice 11

Chris Considine’s ‘The Island’

This pamphlet evokes Looe Island, a small island off the coast of Cornwall. This is a remote place, both of the world and yet apart from it, where when one arrives or departs depends on the elements more than one’s own decisions. Her writing conjures its many moods – its quiet, its storms – and offers a clear-eyed glimpse of the practical and the other-worldly aspects of spending time there. Her poem Rough contains what I take to be the essence of the place.

 

Rough

 Woke at five to a muted booming – wind
drumming on the thick-walled house and water
smashing itself on the shore. Hard to make out
much through the salted glass.

A phone call – there’s no going to the mainland
today. The harbour bar impassable – wind in the east
(which the gulls on their rocks expected yesterday
facing Rame Head instead of Talland).

There’s fish in the freezer (boatman’s gift), tomatoes
reddening in the greenhouse, plenty of windfalls
for the pigs. Shame the ducks have stopped laying
and hens hide their nests in the wood.

I unpack my packed bag, put on the kettle,
hope the gas will last. The beamed rooms
have a look of strangeness as if containing,
as well as me, my anticipated absence.

How long, how long? The islanders were marooned
three weeks last winter. The clock in the hall has stopped
and I don’t know how to get it going.
I wonder –­ can time move on without it?

 

Here are many of Chris Considine’s characteristic traits. A voice which is relaxed and authentic, expressed economically in poised and paced language, moving amongst and illustrating underlying ideas and emotions with an undemanding ease.

I enjoy they way it unfolds, starting with that almost claustrophic and timeless first description, then the phone call which brings in the wider world and might redeem the situation slightly were it not for the fact it confirms the speaker’s isolation. The reference to the gulls facing in to the anticipated wind seems to gently point to how other creatures are better adapted than us to the elemental world.

But that sense of vulnerability dissipates with the taking stock of the third stanza and the realisation it will be ok. All you have to do is wait it out. But wait it out in a shifted space where the ‘familiar beamed rooms/ have a look of strangeness as if containing,/as well as me, my anticipated absence.’ This brief eloquent sentence seems to contain something crucial about the nature of places like this, timelessness intruded upon by time-bound humanity. And unease returns with the prospect of being marooned with a broken clock and that existential final question. Which somehow sends me back to the beginning of the poem with its other-worldly evocation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice 10

Paul Mills’ pamphlet ‘Out of Deep Time’ is an imaginative and ambitious selection of poems about human evolution. Such a daunting all-encompassing theme might deter the faint-hearted, but Paul Mills has years of experience as a writer and both the confidence and skill to take it on. What he accomplishes works for me on a number of levels, the imaginative, the thought-provoking and the emotionally affecting. As he tackles this theme from its various aspects, he often employs a particular image or notion with which to explore the evolutionary process. There is ‘The story of hands’, ‘The story of glass’, ‘A wriggle’, ‘The story of a line’. But the one I focus on here is ‘The fix’.

The fix

 is to shape stones that bite   sharp as incisors
under a carob’s shade   among wild rubble
seeing the wide plain   the herds of bison

is not to scavenge but become hunters
is to make death happen where you want it
is to make the clouds of vultures wait

a world shaped by fix   the power of fix
not this of uninterrupted heat
not wind   ice   but shelter and fire

is to invent needles   invent furrows
join strong hands to flexible minds
is to make them restless for completion

on my hearth a poker shaped to a point
iron-handled shovel   iron tongs
sawn logs   at my back a radiator     hot

in my freezer a package of lamb   ice
salmon   broccoli   bread   it’s everywhere
we live by the fix   will die from it probably

yet I also notice what’s not the fix
on the mantelpiece a peculiar jug
decorated Navaho sphere-thing from Nevada

and here’s a guitar     paintings   patterns   games
saying to me the fix isn’t all   never was
there is the fix held back   the fix in reverse

coins and swords flung to the waters   other rhythms
saying however far you reach you hear it
hear them both   the fix and not the fix

 

 

What initially attracts me is the title, the use of a simple single syllable word to denote the process of human endeavour, the birth and continuing process of technology. It seems to sum up and take everything down to basics, giving us a perspective that’s unpretentious and irrefutable.

In just a few stanzas it moves me from early stone tools to the contents of a modern freezer, via the ‘carob’s shade   among wild rubble’, until we’re considering the simple everyday tools of today, ‘iron-handled shovel    iron tongs’. On the way I’m offered some deftly evoked images including making ‘death happen where you want it’. There’s nothing sentimental or romanticised about the intent of this poem. It looks at the stark and practical reality of survival, right up to the modern day where ‘we live by the fix   will die from it probably’. And yet…

there’s the turn – ‘what’s not the fix’ – and we’re considering the artful, the decorative, the playful, the rejection of violence and functional commerce, ‘coins and swords flung to the waters’, all that gives life grace and a meaning beyond mere survival and relentless technological advance.

And all this done in 9 three line stanzas, using well-chosen, spare yet evocative imagery to cover the enormous ground from then to now and beyond, so we can ‘hear them both     the fix and not the fix’.

 

 

Editor’s Choice 9

 

Martyn Halsall has been described as having ‘a great gift for language that is both allusive and elegant’. The poems in Coronach are distinctive and atmospheric, largely focusing on the landscape of the north west, both of Scotland and England. However, a poem I’ve always been particularly taken by is about Iceland, or at least about a painting of Iceland.

Migrating Birds
(from a painting by Eirikur Smith)

Imagine you are the woman pictured at the end
of the lava track, at the aftermath of Iceland,
her gaze hardened with glacier lines, her outlook
shingle, back-lit by an open wound of sunset.

Last light catches the ribbing down her hut,
cream corrugated iron, sanded rust;
something of a splintering in the concrete cast,
steps leading up beyond sand’s overlap;
the beach spread to the emptiness of ocean.

Suppose you had just returned there, and you shared
realisations in the night map of her face,
her vision of year ending; deepening sky overcast
spreading its blue dyes further through calm tide;
a shaken pepper pot flock moving away,
south, into migration.
Consider the painter’s hand
leaving her to winter, having prepared the storm
by layering thunder through eclipsing oils.

He might glance back, regret abandoning her there,
turning from the sea, that last flock now far out.
Imagine, instead, he stayed; stood waiting with her.

What I enjoy so much about this is the atmospheric description. It’s based on a painting, but actually creates its own separate sense of a particular place by describing elements in the flat plane of the picture so as to evoke in my mind somewhere three dimensional and emotionally vibrant.

The first stanza, which invites the reader to imagine being the figure in the picture, has ‘the aftermath of Iceland’ and ‘an open wound of sunset’ which sets a certain ominous tone. This is followed in the next stanza by more vivid description, doing with words what an artist does with paint before, in the third stanza, placing ‘you’ the reader more firmly there in ‘her vision of year ending’.

When I’m asked to ‘Consider the painter’s hand’, this takes me out of the picture and into the person of the artist and the paradox of creativity, being immersed in the created object yet separate from it. All summed up in that beautiful last stanza in which loneliness, separation and regret intermingle.

This seems to me to be a poem with many layers of meaning, itself a metaphor I can enter and explore both emotionally and cerebrally.

 

 

Wayleave Readings

The Kendal Poetry Festival runs from 16th to 18th June this year. On Sunday 18th June it will feature Wayleave Press with readings from poets Ron Scowcroft (Moon Garden), Rebecca Bilkau (Choosing New Omens) and Paul Mills (Out of Deep Time), while Mike Barlow will talk briefly about the experience of editing and running the press. More details to follow.

The Lancaster and Scottish launches of Elizabeth Burns’ Lightkeepers were both very successful with full houses to hear engaging and moving presentations and readings from the editors Jane Routh and Gerrie Fellows, and Alan Rice, Elizabeth’s widower. In Scotland we were also joined by Alison Burns, Elizabeth’s sister. Sales were excellent too. Many thanks to both venues, The Meeting House in Lancaster and The Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.

The proposed Wayleave London reading at The Poetry Café has now been postponed due to building work at the café. It is hoped to re-schedule when the dust has settled.

Forthcoming events

“Lightkeepers” Launches
The next Wayleave event is the celebratory launch of Elizabeth Burns’ Lightkeepers on Wednesday 14th December. This will take place at The Quaker Meeting House, Meeting House Lane, Lancaster and will start at 7.30 pm. There will be readings from the book and a talk by the editors, Jane Routh and Gerrie Fellows, about the editorial process and Elizabeth’s work as a whole.

This will be followed by an Edinburgh launch at The Scottish Poetry Library on Wednesday 15th February. Elizabeth was well-known and highly regarded in Scotland, particularly in Edinburgh where she lived and wrote for a number of years before moving down to Lancaster. So it is very fitting that The Scottish Poetry Library are able to host this event.

 

 

Annual Wayleave Reading

Wayleave’s annual reading took place in Lancaster Library on 24th November with readings by Lynda Plater (Three Seasons for Burning), Martyn Halsall (Coronach), Chris Considine (The Island)and Paul Mills (Out of Deep Time). A fifth pamphlet published in 2016 was Plum by Elizabeth Burns. Despite Elizabeth not being with us to read, an appreciative audience bought copies of Plum as well as the other four publications. This was the first time Wayleave’s poets had all come from other parts of the country, some having travelled quite a distance, so it was good to have been able to give them an enthusiastic reception.