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.

 

 

Editor’s Choice 8

Lynda Plater’s pamphlet ‘Three Seasons for Burning’ contains many poems which give me a catch in my throat. This is one of them.

He lost his life thinking of Eunice

She was a long low town
on the Louisiana plain
as he drove down.
The woman at his side
was lovely (though
he could not now
even think of her name)
and her dress
had a shimmer
as the Chevrolet rolled
its peppermint green
between the fields,
soothing heat down.
And she said something
small, shy from her place
at his side
as if she knew
he would think of this,
this slight, light moment
at his dying, remembering
this long, slow time
with heat moving off fields.
It was a hot light:
even at the evening
with sun red and hot
(hot, he said,
as a red Cajun chilli)
as a pain in the chest
burning him to ground.
Yet even then
there were some lights
strung low in the line
to Eunice town
in whose deep arms
pale stars came out
over the flat fields
where corn and cane
ripened with the fall.
Then finally,
even stars went out.

To begin with there’s something songlike in the way it opens, which is sustained right the way through the poem. The narrow, long form is one which I think of as speeding up the pace, but in this case seems to help the story move along more gently, revealing a little more of its intricacies piece by piece ‘remembering/ this long, slow time’.
The female personification of the town, and its name being a woman’s name, gives the poem a suggestive ambiguity. While the conflation of ‘the woman at his side’ and the town is there, the reader always knows which is which. And there’s a touching irony in the fact he remembers the name of the town but not the name of the woman at his side, made more poignant when ‘she said something/small, shy from her place’. Which is followed by what I feel is a dimension-shifting revelation ‘as if she knew/ he would think of this,/ this slight, light moment/ at his dying’. Premonition, hindsight, the mutability of memory all suddenly leap into the frame here and I’m held in a present that, while containing this particular past, also changes it.
And it is a hard present, ‘a pain in the chest/ burning him to ground’ while he relives this brief loaded memory. And the poem ends with that atmospheric conflation of the arms of the town, the memory and the woman whose name he can’t recall but whose premonition is somehow at the core of it all. A poem full of the shifting ground between past and present before ‘even stars went out’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice 7

Rebecca Bilkau’s pamphlet “Choosing New Omens” deals with the experience of moving to a new country, Germany, with her German husband and the struggles of identity, language and sense of belonging that entails. Throughout the pamphlet there’s an awareness of history, both personal and cultural and nowhere is this more boldly confronted than in this, the first poem of the pamphlet.

It’s a poem which demonstrates many of the qualities apparent throughout the pamphlet and indeed throughout her writing generally. There’s a colloquial flow in which serious emotions and ideas are addressed with directness and passion. When she reads there’s a strong sense of engagement in her delivery which remains present on the page.

 On Not Going to Bergen-Belsen

Sunday evening and bluegrass music drives us

through an everywhere and nowhere till we hit

a babel of welcome signs.

Slowly the name

translates itself into sense. An eternity of mourners

must find open doors, open language here

where fact shatters speech.

And all I can see

is a crumbling ridge of hips, not here in the car,

not on the road, but in all my pictures of this land

till I married into it.

Around the cleats

of intimately tangled dead, righteously articulate

through seven decades of doomed atonement

in this quiet country, my new shock.

I pull my hand

back from Michael’s attempted squeeze. Please

but his sentence has nowhere to go. No more

German than ten minutes ago

he’s not my husband

now, not my sweet old leftie, he’s a Roman salute

in camouflage, an explanation machine whose words

beggar vocabulary. All vocabulary.

There’s a museum

at the death camp. We should go. He should go.

My first love was a Jew. Michael owes it to him

and, suddenly, me.

My husband rests

his head on the steering wheel. He’s been guilty

as sin since before he was conceived. Has never

known inculpability

since he could read.

Like the wife whose own post-colonial guilt is the cringe

of history under the bloody carpet.

I put my hand in reach,

and twined in the relief of grief we search for grace

together; inarticulately grateful for the blessed irony

of winter opening times.

From the very outset the title sets the scene with the ambiguity of ‘not going there’ when how can you not once the name of the place is mentioned. Then the innocuous bluegrass music carries us towards ‘a babel of welcome signs’ (clever use of that word ‘babel’), the translation of the name of the place into ‘sense’ or its reality – the ‘cleats/ of intimately tangled dead’.

But there’s a new shock, too, the poet’s withdrawal from her husband who’s ‘been guilty/as sin since before he was conceived’. As a reader I’m totally caught up in this, the unavoidable conflict, the way the poet is plunged into heady emotions, the sudden need to generalise, apportion collective guilt, and her husband’s ‘Please’ and his helplessness before the enormity of a history he’s not responsible for but is nonetheless associated with. And as we’re being taken through this scene, there’s a return to reason and compassion which culminates in self-realisation with ‘the wife whose own post-colonial guilt…’ at which point I let out my held breath, relieved to find hands twined again.

The last stanza carries in its irony the truth that you don’t have to go all the way to arrive. Perhaps the best way of dealing with these powerful emotions is to acknowledge them, as this poem does, and move on.

For me the articulate honesty of this poem is added to by the form which reflects the see-saw of emotions and thoughts, cleverly moving this way and that through a series of linked stanzas.

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice 6

Cherangani by Mark Carson

Experience may be Mark Carson’s raw material – Ireland, life as an ocean engineer, Africa – but the essence of his writing is an intelligence and optimism which offers an easy-going eloquence and sensitivity. The relaxed readability of his poems can, though, be deceptive. At ease in their narratives you may be, but at the same time aware something rich, fresh and unexpected is happening or about to happen. His language and imagery is always rewarding, ‘serving up portmanteaus and unexpected conjunctions aplenty’              ( Simon Zonenblick, Sabotage). For example, here’s the poem ‘Cherangani’ :

Cherangani

They were there when we wakened
in the first light as we thought it
as the bell birds called in the thorn scrub
and the mists dissipated
and the handsome black and yellow ticks
shouldered their way up the grass stems
to the very tip
shoving each other
for the most advantageous station
and the drybush kingfisher
killed its first early chafer
crunchingly by our bare heels
and the strange hybrid cornflakes
rustled in milk from the coolbox
and the orange juice, ah the orange juice
gurgled in the grateful throat
and they were getting closer
and the first soufria of water
boiled on the little blue stove
decanted onto the roasted coffee
bringing a rush of optimism
and the crusty rolls and marmalade
and now they were really quite close
shy but forward and we could see
the dull gleam of her neckrings
and the colour gash of her beads
and her little ones giggled
at the fair voluminous curls of our little ones
and shy still she wanted
wanted something, she couldn’t say what
she wanted, she couldn’t say in English or Swahili
or anything
it wasn’t food or drink she intimated but
yes it was the empty del Monte can
the top cut out she could see
she could tell it was empty
empty, an empty can for putting things in
for putting water in
and I took the light ballpeen hammer I always carried
and skilfully hammered the edge smooth and dimpled
and fixed a piece of bullwire as a handle.
And the sun rose in the Kerio Valley
and warmed our backs kindly
as we set off homeward
to the urbane pleasures of the city.

What I love about this poem is the apparently leisurely way it unfolds itself, engaging me totally all the way. I’m immediately hooked in to the narrative with that first line, but then taken elsewhere with detailed and delicious descriptions of the morning, its insects and birds, the breakfast rituals, before once again ‘they’ appear ‘getting closer’ as if the poem’s reassuring me as a reader we will get there in the end but meanwhile there’s no rush; just like the morning itself, it’s there to be enjoyed. And so we continue and ‘they’ get ‘quite close’ and we are finally introduced and follow the understated mime of this cross-cultural interaction, with the surprise of the empty can being refashioned.

I also enjoy the way punctuation is dispensed with and the line lengths and breaks do all the work so eloquently. And throughout, the open-hearted writing sticks to the focus of our common humanity with only the slightly ambiguous irony of ‘the urbane pleasures of the city’ making a nod, perhaps, towards any social/political perspective. No more is needed. It’s in the can.

 

 

 

 

Editor’s Choice 5

Crazy Days 1 by Carole Coates

All the poems in Carole’s pamphlet Crazy Days deal with the episode when her husband suffered from auto-immune encephalitis, with its resulting loss of memory and disorientation. The poems are movingly written and capture with candour, compassion and wit these difficult and frightening events and their effect on the lives of them both.

The poem I’ve chosen is in fact the first poem in the pamphlet, ‘Crazy Days 1’. As a poem about recovery coming at the beginning of the sequence, it hints at what the protagonists have been through and what the reader has yet to encounter, but makes it clear at the outset that they survive, the crazy days are in the past.

Crazy Days 1

How many beds you say
how many beds have we slept in?

 now that you remember I sleep elsewhere
and like redbush tea in the morning
but you can’t remember why I left the big bed
in the crazy days
when you cried out about the hole, the great pit
in the bed, scrambling out of the way for fear of falling.
You could feel the sharp edge of it
smell the cold airs drifting up
so we changed places but you worried that I would fall
down the chasm you’d discovered so I went away
to the attic room

and thought about, though you could not, our first bed –
under the window that looked to the orchard
and I knelt on the bed and watched you walking
among apple trees in an autumn so still that the leaves
hung quiet as fruit and you cupped your hand
round a small brown russet but did not pick it
because you’ve always kept all the rules
as if it would help, as if it would do you good.

Now the chasm is closing and you come upstairs
with a tray of tea and creep into bed with me
and we prop ourselves on elbows and look at each other
and sometimes we talk about love.

 

What strikes me initially about this poem is the combination of honesty and restraint, a restraint which carries an emotional charge, as in the matter-of-fact quality of the last line.

I enjoy the way the opening question, engaging and intimate, leads in to the description of fears and illusions which resulted in separate beds, which in turn moves on to the touching recollections of the first bed. The image of the dark pit is vivid and disturbing, but the reader is rescued by the recollection of the orchard in the next stanza. Its last two lines: ‘because you’ve always kept all the rules/ as if it would help, as if it would do you good’ arrive as an oblique comment on the arbitrary nature of illness.

It is a poem full of the particular and believable, totally grounded. As with all the poems in this pamphlet, the subject matter is difficult and distressing, but the poem itself moving and easy to read, the lines clearly following units of sense and the pauses of natural speech. To me this is an example of how an accomplished piece of writing can take personal difficulty and make it art.