Category Archives: Reviews

Review of Terri Ochiagha’s Achebe & Friends at Umuahia by Olatoun Williams

Title: Achebe & Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite
Author: Terri Ochiagha
Publisher: James Currey (an imprint of Boydell & Brewer)
Publication Date: 16 April 2015
ISBN:  978-1-84701-109-1
PP: 216

Reviewer: Olatoun Williams

61GmUCRu0QL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_[1] Terri Ochiagha’s “Achebe & Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite” is a towering achievement.  I can think of no better book to introduce the current generation of African writers – my focus in 2016 – than this great work. Surely Achebe & Friends will remain the definitive biography of 5 distinguished 1st generation writers whose secondary school education took place in the 1940s at Government College Umuahia, South East Nigeria. The school motto:  In Unum Luceant. Chinua Achebe, Chukwuemeka Ike, Elechi Amadi, Chike Momah and the irrepressible Christopher Okigbo, are our school boys, the “shining ones” – who grew up to become literary giants, straddling their own peculiar universe at a magical time in Nigerian history and it is on their shoulders that our 21st century literary icons stand.

Without a doubt, this is a scholarly monograph, but Ochiagha establishes intimacy with the reader and her subject quickly. It is her voice we hear as she narrates in the 1st person, walking us through what is not only a historian’s journey but a personal one to chart the individual and collective pilgrimage of 5 Nigerian boys through and beyond their colonial British education. I say personal because Ochiagha, of mixed race parentage, is frank about her indebtedness to 4 of these writers for the “nurturance and solace” their literature provided her “at pivotal moments” in her own “travails at the crossroads of cultures.”

The greater part of Achebe & Friends is devoted to their school days at GCU where in academic and sporting prowess the boys were unmatched.  The book progresses into the boys’ years at University College Ibadan where their conquests continue unabated, and advances into an adulthood defined by national and global success.  This literary opus is a beautifully-lit retrospective, gently disquieting – a stained glass window pieced together meticulously and lovingly from information sourced in literary and historical archives; from photos, school annuals and periodicals; from mementoes sent to her by the authors, and from interviews with them. From conversations with their children, conversations with the children of school principals long deceased, and with teachers. Ochiagha spoke with many of their school friends and publishers also played a role in sharing memories and memorabilia.  And later still there were discussions with and photographs sent by historian, Ed Emeka Keazor.  Her research is breathtaking in scope and detail. 179 pages of erudition burning with a spirit of quest which ennobles them and a spirit of romance that uplifts the reader and elicited in me, at moments, frissons of wonder and nostalgia. To classify Ochiagha’s opus as an academic work would be to miss a far greater point: Achebe & Friends is a great love story.

Terri Ochiagha has written out of admiration and gratitude for the legacies of 5 men of letters who respected and loved one another and who as courageous school boys experienced an evolving commitment to liberate themselves from the tyranny of colonial indoctrination not with weapons of hate but with their pens and their brains.  That they were able to do this must be attributed in no small measure to the abundant resources at Government College Umuahia where a succession of principals expressed a deep love and a clear vision for the school, and a sincere conviction about the boys’ intellectual capacities.  Where, using the arsenal of a remarkably well-stocked library and a Text Book Act, educators waged war against excessive “book work”’ and promoted wide and recreational reading. They molded the boys’ minds with a no-nonsense approach to the use of English and with curricula distinguished as much by their high quality as by their imperial bias.  Just 2 of the teachers who adopted imaginative pedagogical approaches were Charles Low or ‘Mad Low’ renowned for his “triumvirate” of disciplines: cricket, classics and literary creativity; and Nigerian, Saburi Biobaku, the Oxford graduate who liked to flick an imaginary lock of hair and yet dreamt of the restoration of indigenous cultures to their rightful place. We get to spend time with an extraordinary array of educators to whose passion the years between 1940 – 1950 owe their fame as the “magical years” during which GCU evolved into a “literary oasis” and hotbed of writing and editorial talent. 

Cultural attitudes at the school also attract Ochiagha’s piercing gaze as she crafts her retrospective of the boys’ pilgrimage.  She is particularly interested in the cultural attitudes of  school principals which range from  Fisher’s paternalistic permission of “cultural alloyage” to Simpson’s vision of  the school as “The Eton of the East” with “Englishness at its core”;  to the frank dismissal by Tolfree and Slater of all that was indigenous in the colony. Ochiagha shows us how these attitudes served as powerful catalysts, producing in the schoolboys a counterforce of ethnic pride and increasing national consciousness which they expressed in subtle acts of subversion of imperial authority. The most “aesthetic” and symbolic  act of subversion being the one performed by Chike Momah’s fictional cricketer, Obidike, a “thinly veiled” Christopher Okigbo” in his book, “The Shining Ones”. 

Obidike’s brilliant performance on the cricket pitch combined with his dismissal of the conventional rules of the game produce “gasps of wonder and disbelief  in the spectators watching him reinvent it – as though the very English game of cricket did not belong to the English; as though he, Obidike, had seized it, colonized it; and made it his own. 

Government College Umuahia was located in the backwaters of South East Nigeria, “far from the madding crowds” of cities like Lagos where journalist turned politician Nnamdi Azikiwe bellowed nationalist propaganda though the foghorn of  the West African Pilot.  It wasn’t the legend of Azikiwe – though it had reached them – but imperialist forces dominating the “bush” enclave of GCU that made the schoolboys angry enough to begin in their minds the deconstruction of the “colonial hegemonic discourse” with its “epistemic violence”. This work to “deconstruct” would come in later years to define their individual and collective literary production.  The pen is mightier than the sword.

Our protagonists would grow to see themselves as prodigals returning home – not with the intention of glorifying pre-colonial history but to introduce a new discourse with which to heal themselves of the “psychic wounds” inflicted by imperial education.  What they sought to do through their writing was to move beyond the “psycho-cultural anguish” they experienced in the “liminal place” they were forced to inhabit. This perilous place, in which warring cultures met, was the wilderness the young men were committed to forge through. Through their literature, they would forge an honest and realistic path of thought that would lead them and their brethren into a modern Africa. An Africa that would pay homage to what was their own by heritage; an Africa which would evolve to meet the demands of the times. To communicate this vision, our novelists would learn to function as teachers. Christopher Okigbo and Elechi Amadi despite themselves, would come to embrace the didactic mission of their friends Chinua Achebe and Chukwuemeka Ike. Without exception, the men were honest and recognized that their discourses were best served using mental tools acquired from varied sources in their home cultures and in their formal education which was English.

The urgency of Terri Ochiagha’s desire to see the world break out of the prison of binaries: Africa/Europe, black/white, coloniser/colonised, this culture / that culture – reverberates throughout her history of 5 beautiful souls growing up and breaking out of those very binaries; crying for freedom in an expanding 3rd space – full of light and permission to be what they had become, and were becoming: enriched human beings, great Nigerians and citizens of the world.

They were products of a school that in the first half of the 20th century ranked in Nigeria as Primus Inter Pares – First among equals. Christopher Okigbo, poet turned solider, died with characteristic drama, at the war front of Biafra. He was in his 30s. He was so young. Chinua Achebe lived into old age but has since passed to glory. Of our 5 protagonists, only Chukwuemeka Ike, Chike Momah and Elechi Amadi, venerable old men, are still here. For the important task of documenting sovereign Africa’s struggle to liberate herself from whatever shackles remain and from whatever fetters she acquires as she modernizes and globalizes, the baton has passed to the new voices crying in the 21st century wilderness of Africa’s hopes, Africa’s doubts and her uncertainty.

 

olatoun

Olatoun Williams is a graduate of French from the University of Bristol, UK (1988). She heads the Selina Group – a small Lagos based business started in 1990 which provides office, desktop publishing, recruitment and travel services. In 2003, she founded Sponsor A Child Nigeria which promotes child welfare in institutions for orphans and vulnerable children.  She is the editor and co-author of a series of manuals entitled “The Good Home Quality Service Advocacy Scheme™” which implements child rights in partner institutions.  Fiction she has written includes, “The Triumvirate” (Malthouse Press. 1992) and “Lagos Heat” (Malthouse Press. 2001).  She supports the literary arts by facilitating literary workshops for school children and moderating book readings and presentations. Borders Book Reviews, 1 of the 3 elements of her media based project, Borders: Literature for all Nations, was launched on Facebook in April 2015.

Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein. Reviewed by Nick Cooke

Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein
978-1-90685662-5  Oversteps Books 51 pp  February 2016   £8.00
‘You ain’t been blue; no, no, no.
You ain’t been blue,
Till you’ve had that mood indigo.
That feelin’ goes stealin’ down to my shoes
While I sit and sigh, “Go ‘long blues”’

So goes the first verse of the Duke Ellington number providing the title for Wendy Klein’s third collection. If it suggests deep gloom as the prevailing mood of the book, the impression would be false, as this is primarily a joyous if ambivalent celebration of the lives of the author’s close relatives, in particular her father, a schoolteacher who never realised his youthful literary ambitions and lived largely in ‘his own head where he swears he’s forever stalked/by the same-old mean-old who-am-I blues’ (‘Who-am-I Blues’).  The title poem establishes the context rather more accurately, as Klein recalls that point in her childhood (or more likely, adolescence) when she was ‘too old to tickle’ and her father decided to take her back, narratorially speaking, to his youth in the New York City of the jazz age. Through a typically astounding act of compression, in which 26 lines cover a whole era in her father’s life as if a whole novel were flashing before our eyes, Klein takes us through a time when, ‘hanging out with other chorus boys back-stage Broadway’, his ‘bottom got pinched…by guys you guessed might be too young/to shave’, to ‘wild parties in Greenwich Village,/fuggy dance halls in Harlem’, finally reaching his memories of Ellington’s music, putting on an old 78 of the song and dancing his daughter around to it. The memory is illustrative of Klein’s technique in being as multi-sensual as it is vividly detailed:

 
……….You take me round the waist, count out the beats,
……….hum the tune in my ear, your aftershave still strong

……….despite the five o’clock shadow on your cheeks, your chin,
……….as we move around the floor avoiding chairs,

……….a hooked rug, the coffee table, the glass with your second or
……….third Jim Beam on the rocks, waiting nearby.

This passage epitomises the central section of the book, dominated by two-line-stanza, ghazal-style pieces all based around photos, memories and tales of her father, where the lines and sentences are invariably long and flowing. Klein is remarkably adept at maintaining the grace and rhythm of extended, reflective sentences, which are especially well-suited to the poignant, often elegiac tone of these poems. Possibly the best and most dramatic of a highly impressive bunch is ‘My Father Nearly Half-way Through’, where the final sentence is ten-and-a-bit lines long, taking us ‘from the years of his recovery’ after the death of  Klein’s mother, through his frustrated attempts at writing fiction, ‘crouched in front of a typewriter’, culminating in the revelation of a key new relationship, where the concertina-d closing section enacts a child’s-eye view of the speed with which the ‘new mother’ is installed (to the accuracy of which I can personally attest, being also a child of re-married parents:

………..until he emerges with Ruby, my would-be new mother
……….on his arm, on the beach, in his bed (shhh – don’t tell),

……….in his kitchen frying bacon, on a swing in the park, me on her
……….lap, Ruby in a flowery summer dress, in our lives to stay.

In case we anticipate a wicked-step-mother scenario, however, subsequent poems establish anything but, as the warm-hearted if conventional Ruby ‘shoulders the domestic side’, which includes the brunt of childcare duties. ‘Seen From Below’ pictures the family on a camping trip ‘in the high Sierras’, with ‘Ruby and I/wrestling with the tent in the dark -/me a scrap of an eight year old, holding the centre pole/upright’. Though Klein is rarely laconic, she is almost always economical in her own way: how much, in terms of enlightening the reader as to the burgeoning relationship, can be read into the simple phrase ‘Ruby and I’.

 
Throughout the book Klein exhibits an almost miraculous eye for the telling detail in a photo or anecdote, to the point where if she every tires of poetry she could surely perform admirably as a researcher on Who Do You Think You Are? In ‘Spit and Polish’ I admired the clever avoidance of cliché as she describes her sixteen-year-old father, then a cadet, as having a trouser-crease that was ‘meat-cleaver keen’ (the obvious choice would have been ‘sharp’). The observations that follow fuse the imaginative with the emotionally sensitive, as Klein explores the confinements, and by implication the underlying fear, of the young man’s new metier: ‘the braid on his jacket/dissects his narrow chest, squeezes his ribcage, restricts/his breath’. The implication is spelt out directly a few lines later:

 
……………………His lips are compressed as tight as his uniform,
……….as if he has finally been taught to keep his mouth shut.

In ‘My Father insists on Laugharne’, there is a nice subtlety through which the ghost of Dylan Thomas, evoked in references to Fern Hill and Under Milk Wood – school texts that Klein’s father is trying to teach to an unresponsive student – implicitly hangs over the whole collection, through a poem that is not actually mentioned. The man at the centre of so much of the book never fulfilled his ambitions but kept plugging away at them, including his piano-playing, even though he never showed any talent at it: ‘you had to hurry;/knew you had to make the best of what was left.’ (‘My Father in a Street in Seville’) We sense that the man did not go gentle into that good night. And in the final poem to mention him, ‘My Father as the Picture in the Attic’, the suspicion is confirmed to the extent that we  learn he showed his diehard spirit to the end, by keeping on driving until his licence had to be revoked, for his own safety. But lest the last glimpse be a sad one, this poem has earlier celebrated happier times by capturing his comically young and women-pleasing appearance in middle-age – he was once asked for ID by a cashier fooled by his ‘full head of hair, the crew cut/so convincingly youthful’, when 45 years old.

 
Although some readers might feel that Klein would have been well advised to focus her book entirely on her father’s fascinating and touching story, rather than dedicating the second half largely to other concerns, I felt the collection was enriched by the subsequent shifts in tone, style and form. ‘Friar Mendel’s Children’ is a delightfully witty look at the relevance of the famous geneticist’s work to his own family, while ‘Tracking the wolf’ reveals a sparseness of diction that belies the earlier verbal abundance, as it slips into the stylistic groove of Cormac McCarthy and half-subverts, half-reveres the mythology of fairy-tale and fable:
……….blood-marred
……… the bone  the boy the poet
……….who against reason
……….will take the wolf’s side
……….not knowing
……….what everyone must surely know

……….that no one can ever
……….save the wolf
……….that the wolf cannot be saved

‘The people of Sahel consider rain’ displays an unexpected Hopkins influence, with marked use of alliteration and a daring form of sprung rhythm which is in effect only a slight intensification of what could be called Klein’s default ghazal-esque tempo:
……….…the way it would steal from the sky,
……….gather speed, shimmer like silver needles,

……….the way it would feel on the face, the hands, its patter;
……….how it could carve creeks on dust covered backs,

……….on legs and arms that cracked with the lack of it, and mouths
……….pinch-parched, thirst unslaked by the slick of it…

‘Freeze-frame’ is a wonderful vignette comprising captured moments of heightened emotion, based on Anna Karenina, or rather the Vivien Leigh film thereof. Again all the senses are invoked in an almost Keatsian way:

 
……….and you almost believe you hear bells a troika
……….the jangle of harness
……….the snap and whistle of a lithe whip  savour
……….the tang of ardent kisses
……….secreted in the musky furs that shroud the lovers
……….who huddle there red with cold
……….and kisses as they race across frozen
……….fields to their fatal destinations
……….a battlefield or a ballroom…

Perhaps most memorably of all, ‘Nothing to declare’ provides a return to the characteristically compressed narration of the two-line stanza-form, but updates it, so to speak, by bringing the story up to the present, and showing how, through her own poetic skill, the author has in a sense fulfilled her father’s literary dreams. Returning home from a family holiday, Klein has nothing to declare to the customs official at the airport, but in fact has much in terms of memories and images, which only a poet or an artist can ‘declare’ in the fullest sense:

………………………………..Nothing to declare

……….but the soft rain outside last night, or the five of us –
……….two generations gathered around a table

……….sharing crême brulée and pivotal memories.
……….The eldest tells why she never eats onions;

……….how when she was forced to, she vomited;
……….her sister relates the tale of being small…

The poem’s ending encapsulates so many of this splendid collection’s qualities, exuding a warmth and lucidity through both the surface meaning of its words and their deeper associations:

……….Nothing to declare but yesterday’s sun, warming
……….their backs as they scrambled over oak-leaf carpets

……….their long, strong legs, their laughter, their coats
……….swirling through the dappled light.

‘Resonance’, a poetry collection by Gary Beck. Reviewed by Mandy Pannett

Resonance by Gary Back. 
Dreaming Big Publications. ISBN: 9781523916405

 

Resonance begins with an introduction by Gary Beck taken from his longer essay The Evolution of Poetry, and I’d like to begin this review by looking at this as I feel the content is important, not only to the author himself as it sets out his personal direction for writing, but also is relevant to the role of poetry in this twenty-first century world.

 
‘I must deliver what I believe to be a necessary blunt message’, says Beck who has been frequently criticised for doing just that. In turn he is scathing about what he sees as ‘a type of indulgence’ whereby, in his opinion, the culture of western poetry (particularly in the States) seems to favour ‘an endless stream of ‘pictorial imagery’ based on ‘personal agonies and confessions’ which degrades ‘the uniqueness of verbal description’.  This is an age, continues Beck, ‘of insecurity and danger’ in which poetry has a diminishing influence on world events. There should be alternatives, he says, ‘to academic products and disclosures of angst’. Among these alternatives are the blunt messages of ‘direct communication’.

 
I had the pleasure last year of reviewing Gary Beck’s previous collection Conditioned Response which adopted the same hard hitting stance in its hatred of corruption, acquisition, consumption and media manipulation. Dire Prediction, the opening poem in Resonance attacks ‘bloated consumers’ and adds a plea for the return of ‘men and women/who will walk through fire, bullets, blood,/to protect us’ from the world of power where ‘men stand by the buttons/of weapons of mass destruction, eager to slay millions,/while we sit in comfort in our homes’ (Children of Deprivation). The scenario in Radiation Rhapsody is even more chilling for here we have a landscape that includes

 
……….No more rush hour.
……….No quick latte at Starbucks.
……….Just a large crater
……….that will glow at night
……….for the next hundred years.

Gary Beck, in his introduction, states that he may have abandoned ‘metaphor and simile’ in his preference for direct confrontation with social and political issues. Resonance, however, shows few signs of this. Certainly the language is stark but there is no shortage of lyricism. Condition Grave may attack an ‘aging land’ which is ‘tainted and diseased’ but it begins with memorable lines ‘What is the hunger of water-falls,/little men of tiny boats, flirting with whirlpools?’ Images from myths and legends are plentiful as in Mythos where the death of Balder in Asgard is a cause of lamentation as ‘the wind goes howling and shrieking/through naked trees’ and ‘The creaking of frigid limbs/splits the darkness/as the wild hunt goes on.’

The collection does also include some poems seemingly of a more personal nature. Opium Escape is one such where the narrator says ‘I watched you walk away/out of my dark, bewildered life./I cursed you then.’ I also like the imagery and lyricism of Fond Pause where memories of leaving/being left bring ‘thoughts of musty windmills,/mouse ghosts/unsqueaking in shuddering rafters’
However, it is the ‘tougher’ poems I prefer – the kind of poems Gary Beck has said he wants to write, that need to be written. Bleak Highway, I think, says all of it:

……….It is inky night.
……….We are driving, driving, driving
……….into the impenetrable blackness
……….of the heart of America.
……….There are no stars visible,
……….just never-ending darkness
……….broken only
……….by the passing gleam of headlights
……….from wanderers forever lost
……….in a confusing land.

Skins by Reuben Woolley. Reviewed by Nick Cooke

Skins by Reuben Woolley (Hesterglock Press, 2016)
ISBN 978-1-326549-97-8     pp 54        £7.50 

 
Reuben Woolley’s instantly recognisable poems, always in cummingsesque lower case and often broken up in both layout and syntax, could be said to resemble pieces of shrapnel scattered across a particularly scarred battlefield. Indeed, the opening poem in skins appears to enact the devastating effects of the bombs it mentions, as well as conveying a tension between destruction and counterbalancing hope, via first an image of hand-holding, survival-seeking solidarity and then a characteristically neat wordplay, with ‘shells’ suggestive of both explosions and potential birth:

 
 ……………& fire doesn’t welcome
  
………………they’re hiding
………………from blades & bombs
…………….. see fear
 ……………  come down dark hills

 ……………  hold hands
……………  .for survival …………….hoping
 …………..  .for a better god &
 ……………..wooden doors
…………… ..are no protection ……hear
 ………….. ”the first shells break

 …………..  & isis
…………..   was the name of a river

 

However, for me the most useful analogy when looking at Woolley’s work overall would be a radio with poor reception. Listeners are aware they are being presented with important material, but have to struggle to catch every word, with much lost and left to conjecture.  Can we be sure we have heard the most vital elements in the poet’s message, or only clues as to the true meaning? The act of reading becomes a mystery, a jigsaw puzzle – one might almost say a game, were the themes and the tone not so hauntingly near the emotional and psychological knuckle.

 
Woolley is the energetic and politically committed founder and editor of two vibrant poetry websites, I am not a silent poet and the recently inaugurated The Curly Mind, which features experimental and avant garde work. In skins he focusses specifically on the current refugee crisis, and it is typical of the man’s spirit and generosity that he is donating all profits from the book’s sales to CalAid, an organisation dedicated to meeting the basic needs of displaced people.

 
The horrific realities of war, in the era of ISIS and similar organisations, are a constant if tersely-worded concern. They include sexual exploitation and commercialisation of minors, as explored in ‘detonator’:

 
……………a girl
……………a weapon
……………of mass destruction
……………this is how
……………to win a war.children
……………come cheap

……………girls cheaper

Just in case that message is not quite clear enough, it is driven home in the next poem, ‘they said’, where the age-old value of education is seen as having been undone by a new, completely amoral code of priorities, and the sexual degradation is underlined by deliberately pornographic spelling:

 
……………this light of books
……………is untaught you
……………on dusty ground.new
……………lessons are written
……………in cum & blood
……………& smiles are foreign now

However, we are soon reminded that the young victims of this aspect of modern reality were not in fact born to be chattels or objects of abusive gratification, but human beings who, though marginalised with even less power than their uprooted (or very possibly dead) parents, and whose suffering is often too much to bear for the average TV news viewer, have overflowing memories and past lives, just like other children. In ‘heroes’, Woolley’s wordplay centres on ‘brimming’, which suggests both tears and abundance:

 
……………so much
……………went missing today

……………& on the edges
……………the children.huddled

……………whole stories brimming
……………in their eyes

……………mute the tv
……………let me read through dust

 

In ‘dark eyes any time’, the chilling conclusion summons up a poet who may well be a key influence on Woolley, as it recalls (if in a context that signals contradiction as well as homage) the end of ‘The Hollow Men’:

 
……………the children don’t cry
……………& dogs
……………………..don’t whimper

 

They don’t cry, or whimper, one assumes, because they are dead. We are certainly inhabiting a real wasteland, as barren as anything in Eliot’s post-World-War-One terrain, and one reflected in Woolley’s layout, as well as his even-sparser-than-usual language and the use of shocked repetition:

 
……………the empty

…………………………eyes
…………………………& holes
…………………………………….gouged
………….crumbs
…………………………& dust
………….& dust       & holes

 

Much of the book’s second half centres on drowning, not merely the physical horror involved, but all the levels of obliteration denoted by the specific instances of drowning as a would-be refugee. There’s another echo of Eliot – a double one, not only of ‘The Hollow Men’ but also the ‘clangs/The bell’ of ‘The Dry Salvages’ – in ‘lampedusa’, where the idea of drowning (though dimly hinted by the title) only comes in at the last minute and is couched in harrowing euphemism:

 
……………in the waves
……………the shadows

……………i hear the hollow bell

……………& shall we go
……………& meet them at the tolling

……………no flowers
……………no floating

‘waves’ spells out the theme, while echoing the earlier poem and making the ‘fl-’ alliteration still more poignantly commemorative:

 

 

……………i take the sea
……………when i move  ……………always
……………on the edge of drowning
……………shuffling steps
……………these drifting bones
……………speak in salt
……………i’ll sail again
……………in high wind spray
……………leave

…………   no flowers floating
……………are not ghosts here

 

And a few poems on, Woolley becomes still more direct, naming a poem ‘drowning’ which begins ‘here/they breathe water/till darkness comes’. But again there is a glimmer of renewed hope in the next piece, ‘dark water’, which ends

………………………………………….a phrase
……………painting pictures
……………in water ……….flow
……………in dark rivers i don’t
……………fully

 

……………understand   ……….i swim
……………cross-current
………………………………not drowning
……………not always

 

There are survivors, even if so many are lost. A later piece, ‘crossings’, attempts to weigh up the tallies (perhaps a little too baldly, making this one of the less effective):

 

……………we’ll take our children
……………& sail
……………………..& some
……………survive

……………walk  ……….long
……………& unwanted
……………………………..waiting
……………unfairly
………………………….& some
……………will drink salt
……………………………& sink
……………unfairly

 

However, any slight wavering of technique on Woolley’s part is soon rectified, and the book’s later poems confirm its dignified power and the memorable effect of so much of its imagery:

 

…………………………& here
……………the dark scarecrow

……………in the empty field
……………where hands rose
……………like harrowed wheat          (‘targeted’)

 
……………i could say this otherwise
…………………………………the dead
……………are only slightly buried.we dream
……………of orbits & hurtling stars
……………………walk
……………quietly
……………& think it all a different way    (‘tired eyes blink in daylight’)

 

That final passage, once again redolent of Eliot (the ‘That was a way of putting it’ section of ‘East Coker’), and possibly also of Larkin (‘see it all again in different terms’ from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’), encourages different viewpoints of the subject-matter, in a way that implies Woolley, as passionate as he may be about the issues, does not want to come across as dogmatic or manipulatively polemical. What he has essentially done is present the images that strike him as key, and invite us to make of them what we will. Ultimately he is an imagist/symbolist, in a tradition extending back as far as Eliot and Pound’s own poetic mentor, Jules Laforgue, and this book is a worthy addition to that branch of the modernist canon.

Review of Cottage Pi by Graham Burchell

Cottage Pi  by Graham Burchell   SPM Publications    Review by Mandy Pannett        ISBN 978-0-9927055-9-6

There are many things to admire in Graham Burchell’s latest poetry collection (including the cover art designed by the author himself). For now, however, I want to concentrate on the aspect that most appeals to me – the detailed creation of a sense of place underpinned by nostalgia for a previous and very different setting and by the pain of allowing new memories to form. ‘I will reshape my steps’ he says in the opening poem and this is what subsequent pieces in Cottage Pi show him attempting to do.

After Hours presents the reader with the situation. The author has moved from a seaside town in Devon, a place with ‘herring gull sky’ and ‘lightly salted air’, to a small, urban stone cottage by a major road and a railway. Here, in the middle of a terrace, ‘breath’ is ‘squeezed’ like ‘a Cinderella between two sisters’ while the tiny rooms ‘cower’ against the busyness and noise. A powerful word, ‘cower’ and it seems implicit in the poems, especially the earlier ones, that it is not only the setting that cowers and shuffles breathlessly. In this new home Burchell sets about his task of reshaping and adapting to ‘new floors’ with ‘memories pressed under my ribs’. A difficult and emotional task.

Good Deeds develops this theme. The poet finds that reshaping involves absorbing the atmosphere of a new place in all its guises. This includes all the stuff and mess left behind by the man and his boy who lived there before – ‘blue-tack on hot-chocolate coloured walls,/stickers on a radiator, a pile of two pence pieces,/ a greasy oven, bits of Tupperware fossilising/on top of cupboards, a drip in the cistern/and a roughage of papers’. Here, in this cottage, a copy of the house deeds brings in memories from a much earlier time. Although the papers are fading in sepia they still offer hope of a new beginning like ‘a birth certificate’ or ‘a treasure map’.

A theme running through Cottage Pi is that of light and its absence or loss. There is only ‘half-light’ from the window where Burchell is trying to read the documents (Good Deeds); he hopes to plant new seeds in his old pots but ‘there isn’t the light’; even the sky is ‘small’ (I Sowed Seeds).

Space and the lack of it is also a theme in this and other poems.  ‘There isn’t the light. There isn’t the space/there used to be’, he says, and the space where new seeds might grow is ‘manhole dark’. In a later poem (The Misplaced House) we have an image of the author sitting in the garden with a book, so near the road that ‘with a fishing rod, I could touch passing cars’.

It is hard to adapt, to accept ‘birdsong drowned, by engine roar, brakes;’ (My Misplaced House). Comparisons provide the pivot between the old and the new. The title poem Cottage Pi details this dilemma – Burchell,  worrying over ‘the exact colour’ of the A385, remembers how previously he had ‘fussed over the colour/of the sea’. In the last stanza the sound of traffic is compared to the sound of the sea:
 …………‘Passing vehicles sound like breaking waves
…………on a pebble beach. The seventh, the big one,
 …………is often deeply articulated.’

There is sadness and nostalgia throughout the poems in Cottage Pi – a sense of yearning for childhood, the loss of contentment with its ‘small moments’, the ‘summer’ of a wedding day. (Summer). There is also humour – lots of it – and lyrical detailed poems such as Fishmore, where the carp live, and Window Spider where Burchell observes the spider that is ‘the size and colour/of a grain of rice, and the legs/are eight of my whitest moustache hairs’.

There is also a feeling of acceptance, or at least of resignation, so that ‘need’, which resembles the sea holly from Guatemala that Burchell grows in one of his pots, does not only contain the pain of ‘a child that howls/having been raised by wolves’ (In my Tiny Garden) but may also become part of another small moment to cherish as one sips tea. (Happiness).

Cottage Pie is an enchanting collection, beautifully produced by SPM Publications, and other readers will find a great many further delights.

A Poverty of Words by Frederick Pollack. Review by Mandy Pannett

A Poverty of Words by Frederick Pollack    Published: Prolific Press

ISBN: 978-1-63275

The poems in A Poverty of Words fascinate me with their range and depth. I have my favourites among them and particularly like those that use the basis of a strong narrative for commentary. What appeals to me most however, perhaps strangely, is an impression of ambiguity and illusion that I felt the more I read and re-read this long collection. So much feels tenuous, fleeting and inconclusive, ‘just over the narrow shifting line’, that it actually reinforces the strength of the book; it is as if the insubstantial creates impact.

 
Tristia, a poem in three parts about Ovid in exile, is an example of this sense of things receding, becoming out of focus and indistinct. Perception, if there is any, is frequently false. Ovid imagines his life story interpreted in different ways by artists in the future and sees ‘these images people would make of him’ although he does quite like his statue in ‘the seedy port’ which doesn’t resemble him/in the least’. In the poem Moonrise people are wandering about as if at a party, talking and exchanging opinions but all the time ‘having perceived nothing’. We are told about their various emotions on seeing a full moon from the veranda: some show off their technical knowledge, others prefer ‘the arty’ approach and bemoan ‘the theft of nature’, a few appear learned and philosophical but all the ‘roles’ are hackneyed and inauthentic. When ‘the moon rebooted’ it is presented as a ‘tacky-sublime effect/in an aging remake of The Time Machine,/jagged and looming.’

 
This sense of fragility and untrustworthiness continues. There are ‘outlines of buildings, stubs of docks,/the unrecoverable streets.’ (View of the Water). Ovid, at the end of his life, feels ‘scraped down to a tone’ and the possibility of any transformation is ‘doubtful’. In Further Adventures there is a faint stirring of interest in ’89 with some talk of freedom but most years pass ‘in a sort of pain’. Everything is qualified; there is ‘a sort of dandruff’ scattered on stairwells, corridors and the tops of people’s heads (More than Generous) and in Is this a Dagger a Macbeth-type character can only ‘dither at silence’ and ‘lose himself in a mere/vertical drowse.’ In the world of A Poverty of Words ‘Things wait/to be reduced further’ as ‘the homeless,/widely separated, sleep/as if trying to become burial mounds.’ (Return to Telegraph). The short poem Minor Oracle sums up, for me, this whole impression of the passive and the diluted:

 
……….Wisdom, painfully
……….gathered, is readily forgotten.
……….The dishwasher that cleans
……….well enough but smells musty
……….when opened remains in use.
……….The viewpoints of distant planets
……….are valid. Laughter drains
……….with water. The black sun yearns to implode.’

 

The atmosphere that Frederick Pollack creates may give the impression of things half-glimpsed and intangible but the language throughout is vivid and striking, rich with images and turns of phrase, intriguing with allusions and associations. If there is one thing the author does not suffer from it is any kind of poverty of words!

 
The reader needs to read the collection thoroughly, each time discovering subtle twists and facets of language. I’ll finish this review by commenting on two poems which I feel epitomise the overall theme of A Poverty of Words – the idea of striving for the uanttainable, the search for a higher level of spiritual development. In Hello Again the Buddha is ‘reconstituted/in a distant future’ and meets with a number of theorists ‘floating in brain-gel’. In this state he has become flexible, polite, bored and slightly annoyed at being bothered but, when asked why he has requested death, he says that he wants ‘To ascend’. Told that ‘it’s no longer an option’ he appears amused but also ‘pitying’. We leave him settling back into ‘the void’ but I felt his wish to ascend was crucial. The same theme may be traced in Diotima, the opening poem, where the Greek philosopher and priestess who influenced Plato with her thoughts on wisdom and spiritual love, wanders around a modern setting in beret and trenchcoat trying, without success, to obtain a visa. The poem ends with her ‘at the edges of the street’ but some lines from the poem’s narrator may suggest some possibility of ‘ascent’:

 
……….What might she have whispered
……….to me, if Immigration had let her through?’

The reader may find an answer, or hints towards a possible answer, within the poems that follow.

Review by Nick Cooke of ‘Convergence: the meeting place of eight poets’

Convergence: the meeting place of eight poets (Circaidy Gregory Press 2015)
ISBN 978-1-901841-23-5     pp 76    £8.99

Review by Nick Cooke

Convergence is an anthology of poems by the finalists in the 2014 Earlyworks Press Poetry Collection Competition, with the exception of the winner Caron Freeborn, whose subsequent book, Georges Perec is my hero, I have reviewed separately for SLQ.

The work selected by editors Catherine Edmunds and Mandy Pannett, who were among the competition judges, explores a wide range of subjects and styles, making for a consistently stimulating read. Diverse as the contributions are, though, the anthology’s subtitle points to plentiful common ground between the poets, and this is reflected in the occurrence of certain prominent themes. Among the topics chosen by several writers, for instance, is childhood, seen in a particularly poignant light in the  opening piece, ‘The House of Bread’ by Andie Lewenstein. Here, a man’s cruel attempts to isolate his young step-daughter from her mother, by refusing to open their door to her and telling his wife ‘it is just a fox or a deer’, runs alongside the story of a ‘Kindertransport boy’, called ‘Kraut-Jew and Jesus-murderer’ by ‘legion’ enemies, who suffers treatment that’s on the surface far worse:

 …………His heart has been under the knife and weathered
 …………rage that we can only imagine by looking at the sea
………… as it devours and disgorges.

But the poem’s skill lies in the way it shows the parallels rather than the gaps between the two characters, and the repeated images of devouring and being swallowed up are later transmuted into the vision of footprints lost in the snow, as Lewenstein ends by touching on the sub-theme of identity erosion through linguistic loss, in the enforced migration experienced by the boy:

……….. I walk from your door
…………backwards, tracing my steps.
…………The snow will cover them.

…………How will you find me?
…………Who will bring them back to you –
…………songs from the house of bread.

…………Der Wind, der Wind,
…………das himmlische Kind.

The repeated use of German, and in particular the word ‘Wind’ recalls the lines from Tristan and Isolde, quoted in ‘The Waste Land’, themselves redolent of uprooted childhood:

…………Frisch weht der Wind
 …………Der Heimat zu,
…………Mein Irisch Kind,
…………Wo weilest du?

Embattled loneliness turns to borderline psychosis in John Wilks’ ‘For the Boy With Seven Hearts’, where the increasingly isolated addressee’s impotent self-harming is juxtaposed with a girl’s sexual precocity that dumbfounds and paralyses him:

………………..You cut
…………your palm with a razor blade
…………and nothing comes out.
………………..She lures
 …………you into her father’s shed
 …………and pulls her knickers down: all
 …………you can do is stare.

In a brilliantly realised blueprint of dysfunctionality, the poem outlines the development of what might be a form of autism or possibly, in its more extreme moments, schizophrenia, with the boy undergoing a dislocation from reality that is skilfully enacted through enjambments (‘Your life is a jump-/cut between unconnected/scenes’), and eventually releasing the frozen erotic energy from the shed incident in an act that would usually be considered worrying, at the very least:

………………..Undress your sister’s
 …………Barbie and caress untipped
 …………breasts, fondle the featureless
 …………mound.

This is immediately followed by a tersely significant pointer that the boy is singularly devoid of empathy, in a haunting indicator of psychopathic tendencies: ‘You hear your father fall,/but take no heed.’

A less disturbing but equally engaging approach to childhood is to be found in Anthony Watts’ ‘Rewind’, which looks back to ‘the grey-flannel monochrome of the nineteen-shorties’ and develops the humorous tone by summoning the names of classic comics through which the speaker tried to define his burgeoning identity and personality. There’s a delightful account of learning to walk in terms of the ‘Big Fight/against Gravity, the world champion’ from which the toddler emerges exhausted but triumphant: ‘I stagger to the edge of the ring and fall/into the arms of my cheering fans.’ The poem’s conclusion confirms the effectiveness of the child’s-view approach as a way of intimating how the infant’s whole world consists of his immediate surroundings, and how in his way he is master of all he surveys – or rather all he touches:

 …………Rewind: This planet is called High Chair. It has a ring of moons.
 …………You can see them low on the horizons, pink
 …………and blue and yellow. I can reach out like God
 …………and move them, with a finger, along their orbit.

…………Rewind. Stop. Click. Reverse.

In New Zealand poet Rata Gordon’s ‘Stone’, the direct style takes us right into the child speaker’s head and leaves us to work out her mother’s motives in weaving a yarn around a mysterious stone. The mini-story recalls the stork tales traditionally told to children to explain the arrival of babies, albeit here with an inanimate object. Is the mother weaving a a charming fantasy or practising a less valid form of deception? The ambiguity evokes the parent’s unique power over her child’s imagination.

…………it landed

…………in my mother’s underwear drawer
…………in a rima box with a fitted lid
…………the one she keeps my teeth

…………she tells me a moa traipsed it
…………around the lip
  ……….of the Hokianga harbour

 …………it was in the moa’s gut
 …………grinding fern roots and becoming
 …………smoother and smaller

 ………….at the Tasman sea
 …………she opened her beak
……….. .her eyelids closed upwards

——————————————–

In a second section whose teasing quality reinforces the poem’s main concerns, Gordon remains equivocal on the issue of parental intentions, as the ambiguous wording half-suggests the mother is deliberately scaring (or is she merely warning?) her daughter, by making out that a stone might some day crash into her  life, like an asteroid, when least expected:

………….I ask mum if one day
  ………..the stone might smash
 …………through the bedroom window

…………to start a new life
 ………..as a tooth in a statue
…………of an open-mouthed queen

 …………but she says
 …………the stone knows better than to leap
 …………while we are watching
(Moa: a large flightless bird [hence the ‘traipsing’] endemic to New Zealand, now extinct.
Hokianga harbour: the mouth of a long estuarine drowned valley/river on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand.)

*

Another notable theme in the book relates to nature, in particular the relationship of people and animals. Two poets invoke an apparent early Ted Hughes influence, recalling ‘My manners are tearing off heads’ from ‘Hawk Roosting’, with the twist that in their cases the lethal power is seen as humanity’s, rather than existing within the animal world itself.  Although Eilidh Thomas’ ‘Flight Path’ does suggest a more direct link with Hughes – ‘In the last light/the hawk/who took the sparrow/has nothing left to mourn’ – that concept of a hawk having human feelings constitutes a shift from Hughes’ amoral killing machine, and her poem ‘Gamekeeper’s Law’ takes the evolution a step further. The first lines are both an admission of vanquishment and an accusation of murder:

 ………..I flew once

…………but now I lie
 ……….dead at your feet

Our fallen protagonist was indeed a bird of prey, but has now become prey. Again, the wild creature is humanised, this time by the reminder that its violent lifestyle has been based not on being programmed to kill for killing’s sake, but the fact that there was a family to care for:

………… My raptor talons
………… will no longer
 …………seek the deep glint
 …………of wild salmon
 …………in the river’s run

………… or the rip of flesh
 ……….. for young to feed

There’s the subtle sense of a final bow, a little like the song ‘My Way’, in the dignified last lines:

 ………… In a heart’s breath
…………  I catch the clean snap
 ………… of lead shot

 ………..  and take my last flight

Similarly, Mick Evans’ ‘Shooting Crows’ may owe something to Hughes, but both context and treatment differ substantially from The Hawk In The Rain. Again the reader’s emotions are stirred by a focus on the helpless young, as the newborn crows are left ‘gargling blood, voiceless’ and ‘threads of crimson coil and blur/pumping from the tiny heart’. And again the critique is in a way even-handed, as the speaker acknowledges that the crows are themselves, so to speak, no angels: they are imagined remorselessly picking clean the corpses of Great War soldiers: ‘We search the eye sockets but see no humanity there./We search until the bones are bare.’ Later, in a seamless and memorable coup, the poem takes on a political angle by widening its scope to include less obvious forms of human predatoriness,  as homeless people are added to the roster of the vulnerable, and society’s hypocrisy is nicely captured in a reference to crucifixion that implies Christian charity can be viewed in terms of empty promises:

 ………..We have seen your streets
……….. the homeless laid out on pavements picked clean of hope
……….. crucified by cold.
……….. Words scatter and fall around them
 ………..like spent shot
 ………..traffic circulates like blood pumped from ruptured veins.

Evans might have done well to end on that devastating note, but he chooses to expatiate further, spelling out what could have been left for the reader to infer, and drawing a conclusion that, as well as being syntactically suspect, tends to dissipate the earlier impact that had been so skilfully created by images rather than arguments:

 ………..Our crime is to be less dishonest than you.
 ………..In your world love sustains but hate is more true. (…)

………..The fixed relations of circling crows’
 ………..ordained distances, the diminishing are
 ………..over crying lambs, are constants;

………………………………………………………………stark
  ………..as the simple formula of what dies, what survives
 ……….. that is distant, fading, following the dark.

Yet whatever the faults of the second half, the first part certainly sticks in the mind, as do several of Evans’ other poems, including his two delightful pieces on ancient thinkers, ‘Plato at St Pancras’ and ‘Weighing Archimedes’, which particularly suit his more ruminative bent.

Also somewhat abstract in her approach is June Wentland, whose ‘Crows’ is typically philosophical in tone. Here, crows are conceived by an unnamed male subject as having ‘no individual existence of their own/they are other birds transformed by sadness/….waiting to be charmed back into a happier form -/sparrow, song thrush, nightingale or lark.’  Such thoughts prompt the man to enter his garden and start hanging Chinese lanterns from the apple trees, playing ‘music about love and loss’, and reading poems by Muir and Frost. Later when a female character arrives, presumably the man’s wife or partner, the poem effects an unexpected change of direction, towards a questioning of his mental balance that might have been in the reader’s consciousness from the off:

 ………..She finds him seated on the bench when she comes home
……….. singing to them, sharing biscuits and the contents of the TV listings.

She promptly urges him to come inside, by way of countering his wayward behaviour, and it’s as if while the garden stands for the potential pitfalls, if not actual dangers of speculative thought, their house represents safety and definability, symbolised by the comforting sound of the ‘theme tune from Corrie’. The ending is ambivalent, implying on one hand an arguably anticlimactic suspicion that intellectual flights of fancy are likely to be sterile, while preserving the notion that they just might not be:

 ………..balance restored between them they listen for birdsong
……….. which probably isn’t, but could be, the sound of crows transformed
 ………..back into nightingales or larks.

The selections from the eighth poet, Angela Arnold, have themes and a style of their own, with a gentler touch than certain others, but one which hints at underlying tension. I found her most striking piece to be ‘Before We Were Lovers’, where the onetime harmony between a seasoned couple has been undermined by a creeping disengagement and low-level but telling alcohol abuse:

………..You were a country, softly
………..webbed in roads for me:

………..magic routes – now I notice
………..too often the glass in your hand,

………..signposting retreat…

The military connotations of that last word typify Arnold’s skill at suggestive understatement, which is glimpsed again at the poem’s end:

………..Your whole Sundayish sparkle
 ………..is now reserved for guests.

 ………..Is it me: too
 ………. sprawled into your life?

‘Reserved’ has a double meaning, describing both the coldness now being shown towards the speaker, and, through the unexpected addition of ‘for guests’, the opposed warmth that her husband/partner demonstrates in his sparkling demeanour with others. We sense a real betrayal in the apparently unthreatening wordplay. In comparable fashion, ‘sprawled’ conveys a sensual abandon, making us picture the speaker sprawled invitingly on a bed, but also brings to mind a graceless fall, thus neatly encapsulating her confused self-image: do I still turn you on or don’t I? Am I really in your life or simply sprawled, smotheringly, over it?

*

I hope these snapshots of  high points give a flavour of the breadth and quality of the contents. As was the case with Caron Freeborn’s winning book Georges Perec is my hero, Circaidy Gregory Press is to be congratulated on an anthology of lasting interest and appeal.

Two Poetry Collections by Helen Moore. Review by Nick Cooke.

Hedge Fund & Other Living Margins by Helen Moore (Shearsman Books, 2012)
ISBN 978-1-84861-201-2     pp 89    £8.95

Ecozoa by Helen Moore (Permanent Publications, 2015)
ISBN 978-1-85623-227-2     pp 84    £9.95

Review by Nick Cooke
With Northern England devastated by floods that most experts attribute to climate change, and fracking recently granted the full government go-ahead despite vociferous opposition, it’s perhaps surprising that there are not more British poets following Helen Moore’s example and attaching the prefix ‘eco-’ to their job descriptions. Perhaps she will in time be joined in her mission by similarly committed warrior-writers. Her two collections amount to nothing less than a literary declaration of war on the forces threatening our planet’s future; indeed, the depth, breadth and growing intensity of her coverage of related issues suggests that Hedge Fund & Other Living Margins (2012) and Ecozoa (2015) can be read as a modern equivalent of the Iliad, with perhaps an Odyssey yet to follow.

 
Reflecting on the relations between the two books is in broad terms a matter of comparing and contrasting the relative subtlety of Hedge Fund with the more urgent, full-on directness of Ecozoa. It’s almost as if Moore consciously wished to begin by using the full range of irony and wordplay of which she is undoubtedly capable, but when the world failed to respond sufficiently to her gentle promptings, she then felt compelled to spell things out still more plainly. The first book’s approach is typified from the off in the title poem, which plays on the double meaning of ‘hedge’ by having its account of natural processes, and unnatural practices such as fox-hunting, juxtaposed with a precis of how money markets work, literally in the margin of the pages:

……..Money markets usually lie
……..at the core of the financial
……..system, functioning quietly

………………………………………Colonies of Snails,
………………………………………feathers, crush of brittle
………………………………………lime – a Song Thrush
………………………………………sings up its midden.

………………………………………Startled mouths –
………………………………………White Dead Nettles flowers
………………………………………open where a shot Fox
………………………………………crept to die; here lies
………………………………………minus an eye.

‘Lie’ in relation to the markets clearly has a double meaning, which the book will go on to explore, while its use in the phrase ‘here lies’ – as though the fox had been given an actual funeral –  is the first example of many where Moore deliberately humanises the experiences of suffering animals. Meanwhile, the litany of animal and plant names, many of them capitalised in acknowledgement of Blake, expands throughout the collection so that by the end it would seem many hundreds have had a mention – a war of attrition in which the jargon of the City is countered by the natural lexicon Moore is so expert in. The poem appears to end with an opening-skirmish victory for the City, because linguistically the world of business and the markets takes over Moore’s attention. However, this proves illusory as in reality the finale reminds us how fragile those markets can be, and in recent times have been:

 ……………………………………………………..Random execution,
………………………………..the insane-making crunch,
 ……………………………….while the contractor sits
………………………………..muffled in his cab,
………………………………..on the wheel his hands
………………………………..stiff as supermarket quotas…

……share values in free-fall,
 …..as investors predict their own
 …..dwindling margins and returns.

Later poems are more mournful of what has been lost in the battle, notably ‘The Fallen’, where that ‘here lies’ is picked up as a refrain introducing each short stanza of remembrance, with each ‘fallen’ wildflower species urged to rest in peace, and ‘Ice, an Elegy’, where Moore’s propensity for humanisation touches the disappearing world of caps and bergs:

……………………………………The Ice Queen is leaving –
………………………………… ..all around her ancient kingdom
………………………………… ..is cracking up…
……………………………………each day her belly calves
……………………………………desperate bergs of ice. Bereft, these tongues
……………………………………curl and shrink as they sense their mother
 …………………………………..spent – her skin once tinted blue,
……………………………………now deathly pale.

 The cliché’ ‘deathly pale’ suggests that at this early stage Moore still has ground to cover as a technician, but occasional blemishes of diction are outweighed by the passion in her message, and specifically the way that in both books the hopeful sense of a future where sense will be seen and pernicious policies reversed in time constantly peeps through the laments for the victims of climate change. In ‘Pantoum of Planting Seeds’, for instance, ‘these smallest things’ – the seeds – contain ‘a potency waiting to be sown’:

 …………………………Dull and dry as peppercorns
………………………….and yet in dormancy they breathe,
 …………………………potency waiting to unfold,
………………………….sensing fertile sun and soil.

‘In Good Hands’ traces the evolution of an ecologically aware consciousness that if magnified into a powerful body of opinion will constitute the basis for huge faith in the future. Its ending celebrates personal growth grounded in this soil of wonder and awareness as the poet-as-child protagonist is visited by a female persona who would seem to be Mother Nature:

 …………………………Her fingers interlock
………………………… to form the church without the steeple.
 …………………………In our Earth everything fits together just so.

………………………….Wide-eyed I stared at their craggy surface
 …………………………that settled back into her lap
 …………………………as if in silent prayer. In good hands
………………………….I learned to cherish every living being.

Towards the end of Hedge Fund this optimistic strain finds its central symbol and source of nourishment on the ideal energy source of the future:

 ………………………..Coiling up the kitchen-blind, I coax the Sun
 ………………………..through every angle on its East to South axis –
 ………………………. tilt my face upwards like a leaf,
…………………………drawing radiance into each particle and cell…

 …………….…I consider the Sun’s constancy, the fiery corona…………
 ………………………                      ..                   then my spirit rises out
 ……………………….over the rooftops, soars higher than the late Swifts

 ……………………….upward through moist layers of gas…
………………….. ….….seeking the troposphere, the stratosphere,
 ………………………where jets scar the Earth’s aura. (‘Sacré Coeur’)

And in ‘Climbing out of a Dog Eat Dog World’, Moore anticipates the more turkey-talking style of her second book as she makes the poet’s responsibility, both as a witness and a voice of hope, absolutely clear:

 ……………………….What can a poet do? Bear witness; be a conscience, perhaps?
 ……………………….Sometimes I feel such agony to see what ignorance and greed

………………………..are snuffing out. Yet somehow I find the inner rungs to climb
………………………..from despair.. Hand over hand, there’s always something

 ……………………….to learn….

………………………..Now I notice when my heart has closed. Only the heart breaks
 ……………………….patterns of fear.

If her heart may seem to some to be a little too much on her sleeve at such moments, Moore takes care to temper the starry-eyed impression by ending her first collection in a watchful, more cautiously positive mood. ‘Today, of All Days’, begins

 ……………………..Today a Hare leaps from the shadows of a thicket;
………………………I’m its silent, motionless observer,
…………………… ..its ear-erect alertness, its wide eyeball watch.

While this appears an interesting amendment of previous links between the animal and human worlds, as if Moore were stating their ultimate separation – she is the observer, not the hare itself – the poem goes on to explore the extent to which the two in fact are or can be truly connected:

  ……………………Today the Oak’s roots support me;
 …………………….through its cleft and curly leaves I breathe,
……………………..knotted arms crowning my dependence.

The final verse implies a coalescence, a melting together of human and natural arenas, at minuscule level:

 …………………….Today thousands of Mycelia connect me
……………………..By sugared strands invisibly through the soil;
 …………………….I fruit browny-white; deliquesce here, there, nowhere.

Perhaps ‘fruit’ as an apparent verb does not quite work as Moore might have hoped, indicating again that for all the quality of Hedge Fund, at that early point in her career there remained room for improvement in some of her phrasing. However, all in all, the book is an inspiring and at times astonishing debut which demonstrates her many qualities and establishes the basis of her considerable promise as a writer.

*

That promise is certainly fulfilled in Ecozoa, described by John Kinsella as ‘a summoning-up of all animals, plants, rocks and soil to have their say as humans dissolve the planet, as the State rides roughshod over the rights of humans and environment’. I’m not sure whether he realises the irony of ‘humans’ appearing in that sentence as both villains and victims, but this version of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ is very much to the point, and Kinsella certainly hits the mark when he pinpoints Moore’s even more impassioned stance (compared to Hedge Fund), through his choice of verbs when describing what she does in the book – ‘intones, invokes, implores and damns’. The verbs almost suggest the power and authority of a deity, which in turn brings in the title’s allusion to Blake’s poem ‘Vala or the Four Zoas’, and its concept of post-Miltonic divine conflict, here re-interpreted by Moore in the context of an epic modern battle against the forces of eco-oppression. As Moore admits in her footnotes, Blake’s mythology is complex, and readers may be slightly perplexed by the way in which her presentation of the four zoas (godlike personifications of life-forces) places Urizen as the embodiment of ‘reason’, in the sense of scientific materialism, which she sees as the potential destroyer of the other three zoas – Tharmas (the body), Luvah (the heart) and Urthona (the imagination) – when the Blake poem actually ends with a celebratory prediction of science’s victory over religion in the industrial age of reason:

……………………………………………….The war of swords departed now,
 ……………….The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns.
……………………………… (‘Vala or the Four Zoas,’ Night the Ninth, ll. 834-5)

Be that as it may, the invoking of Blake, and Moore’s visionary style for most of the book, undoubtedly do summon up the blood in the manner she intends, and make for some memorable and often tub-thumping passages. These lines from ‘Kali Exorcism’, for instance, initially parody a famous Lady Macbeth soliloquy, and then expose an ongoing list of concealed but inhuman crimes, where Moore develops her skill in humanising animal experience by picturing vivisection labs as prisons:

……………………….Come, dark goddess, tear off veils of rhetoric that conceal
 ………………………war-mongering deeds in cloaks of respectability; help us
……………………….hear deeper than the pre-emptive strikes, the collateral damage

 ……………………….ventriloquized by our complicit media,
 ……………………….and demand plain language to describe victims of torture,
………………………..rape and murder in the wars they report.

……………………….Wild one, let your third eye reflect our distancing tactics –
 ……………………….how we blind ourselves with science, mutely condone prisons
 ……………………….where animals are tested with nerve agents, toxins, explosives.

As mentioned, this book does often deal in plainer, sometimes more expletive language than its predecessor, and in arguably its most striking and imaginative tour de force it extends its directness and specificity to naming guilty names. The prize-winning ‘Earth Justice’ traces the mock ecocide trial of September 2011 in which the celebrated crusading barrister Michael Mansfield, who has described Moore’s poem as an ‘epic masterpiece’, proved that it is legally possible to prosecute companies for crimes against the environment, pointing the finger at several individual perpetrators. However, the collection is far from one-note or unrelentingly polemical. Notably, it incorporates many flashes of humour, albeit usually of the rueful variety, such as Moore’s reflection on how product-naming language has changed our response to words like ‘jaguar’, ‘apple’ and ‘blackberry’, in ‘apples are not the only gadgets’, and the curse placed on frackers, strongly intimating erectile dysfunction, in ‘I call on the spirit of Owen’:

 …………..And may the frackers’ drills go soft, their stock & shares evaporate!

Perhaps the finest piece of all, ‘A History of the British Empire in a Single Object’, looks at the topic from a different angle by tracing the origins of every component of a Victorian rocking-chair owned by the poet. On this occasion Moore briefly turns the finger of accusation on her own previous tendency to overlook the sources of different types of wood:

……………………Had I at any moment considered
……………………Mahogany as tree

……………………………………….a glittering crown which rose above
……………………gargantuan forest skirts? How it began as minute heliotrope
……………………hooked up to the light?
……………………How in dry season Mahoganies
……………………would shed their glossy leaves,
……………………baring pugilistic fruit-fists
……………………that were tanned and leathered –
……………………trade winds pummelling out their seeds
……………………spinning them away

……………………to wait for germinating rains?

I particularly enjoyed Moore’s expansion of the stiff-upper-lip imperial image, which links in with her view of Urizen as a head-centric and therefore only partly-human figure. There’s also a nice pun on the modern, Van-Morrisonesque sense of ‘rock the souls’ (viz. ‘Into the Mystic’) alongside the gentler image of Moore in her antique chair:

……………………………..In this metamorphic chair,
……………………from which a Captain’s wife might have come to extol
 …………………..their crinolined infant, I rock the souls of all those generations
……………………consumed by duty –
 …………………..Governor-Generals functioning from the collar-up;
……………………officers’ hearts locked in strong-boxes,
 …………………..tear-ducts dry as husks.

*

Despite the necessarily frequent discouraging moments and images, what links Moore’s two books, overall, is the vein of optimism, already pointed up in Hedge Fund and possibly even broader in Ecozoa, where the title itself suggests an ultimately triumphant new ‘zoa’, and many poems conclude in the spirit of an imagined future victory over Urizen. ‘Spaced Out’, in particular, anticipates a form of new Eden:

…………………One century on ……….we thrive in woody folds
 ………………..flowering fields and Gorse-clad dunes.
…………………Look, our forests have been replanted and the seas
………………………………………………………………….are gradually receding…

The next poem, ‘Prayer to the Critically Endangered South China Tyger’, implies that Blake’s spirit can be revived:

 …………………………………………………… …grant us the fierce desire
 ……………………….to hunt a bright vision for tomorrow…

……………………….Ah! And teach us to rewild ourselves!

This is followed by a fascinating look at Henry VIII in a very new light, ‘Succession, Hampton Court Palace’, which develops the theme of a coming reversion:

………………………..that long imagined future where the chainsaw dies
 ……………………….in the man’s hands, and at Harry’s former seat,
 ……………………….wilderness is finally revived?

Ultimately, the only way of accelerating this desired outcome, Moore suggests in her penultimate poem, ‘A Natural Curriculum’, is through green-shaded education, and as Wordsworth put it in the quote at the top, to achieve this you must ‘let Nature be your teacher’:

 ……………………………………………………………..Worm, our top

 ……………………..recycler, who teaches zero waste in Nature….

 ……………………..Hedges constitute our school, each wood
 ……………………..a state-of-the-earth project – that fallen trunk
 ……………………..the perfect beam for learning balance.

‘Hedges’, of course, takes us back to her first book and the wordplay there. She has reclaimed it again at the end of her second. Where she goes with her third will presumably be to a large extent determined by forthcoming events and developments in the ecological sphere. There might be a couple of foretastes of that in two poems from Ecozoa ‘“This is not a dirty protest!”’, covering an anti-fracking protest in which the poet appears to have been arrested along with several friends, and ‘Ark Rains, from Aberdeen to Zennor’, which focusses on what is commonly reported as ‘freak’ flooding. While waiting we can reflect on John Kinsella’s fully justified description of Ecozoa as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’, and on the clear fact that that journey is very far from over.

Review of the anthology ‘Distillations’

Review by Mandy Pannett of ‘distillations’ An anthology of poems from The Word Distillery
ISBN 978-1-78280-669-1

‘Distillations’ strikes me as a fine title for this anthology with its suggestion of a gradual, careful process that perfects the components of a mixture and extracts the essence from them. Here the distillation is from the imaginative experiences of nine poets via their words into ‘the vivid individuality of single spirits’ (Peter Kay, Editor).

One of the pleasures of a good anthology like this lies in the variety of styles, themes and voices. Michael Dante’s selection impressed me from the outset. Phrases and images from his House of the Beehive sequence have stayed with from the first reading. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s powerful short story, the poems confront themes of delusion, obsession, paranoia and fury in a wilderness setting of brambles and danger. Bee imagery is vivid throughout as these lines show: ‘the holes in my hands/honeycombed with gold’, ‘the wounds in my hands bleed honey’, ‘Bees drone in my ears like Yiddish songs’, ‘My scalp itches, it burns – I cough out bees.’ An atmosphere of pain and lamentation is further created by images such as ‘God’s thorny teeth bite into my forehead’ and ‘the Sea of Death/spreads for miles and a blood-coloured algae/seeps in with the rains.’ Vivid, memorable poems.

Nigel Humphreys has a unique style which is colloquial, urban, ironic and passionate when he chooses ‘to grump against/the throw-up of all this consumer shit’. He uses form and rhyme brilliantly as in the sonnet Ageing disgracefully which ends with the couplet ‘to where Old Nick plays pizzicato/while being buggered by Caravaggio’. Several poems use the device of apparent simplicity to create impact as in chez the Shags where short lines and stanzas convey the dullness and negativity of the couple’s lives and where, at the end of everything, neither have ‘any persuasive/reason for existing.’ Images in these poems are frequently brutal and shocking: ‘and the wind in your brain/whirrs like a chainsaw’, ‘and here/are the dog’s eyes bleeding to be fed/the next whirr on my list’. Possibly my favourite from the selection is Hampstead 2014 where contemporary imagery is counterpointed by a lyrical, poignant tone that is both nostalgic and compassionate when the poet considers the fate of ‘poets passing on a high heath – deleted/from memory one day./just saying.’

What strikes me most about Elunded Jones’ poems is their originality and vividness. I am intrigued by phrases such as ‘His last wife wore fur until the day she saw the face of God in a cracked plate/and was ashamed’(Sensitive Skin) and similarly impressed by the representation of the man in the surreal poem Clocks who says that he is a ‘trainee angel’ and who goes on to buy ‘cod-philosophy’. This same character asks the question ‘Why do clocks shed tears at midnight?’ and is told ‘because they are clocks/and doomed to be moody and circular’. Melodic poems, all of them, but the one I most like is Endangered which describes each gull making itself into sound ‘on this tilt/between weight and/flight’.

I think Allen Marsden must be the master of the extended metaphor in his poems, some of which have the feel of fable about them. An example of this is his poem A Philosophy of Containment which begins with the words ‘It’s said that’ and goes on to describe dragons in the ark who, as a precautionary measure were ‘kept in fireproof holds’. This, however, is not successful and we switch suddenly to the image of dragons as patients in a hospice, suffering from ‘racking asbestos’ When they die, says the poet, ‘They didn’t have cremation in those days/ … so they let them lie as hills,/draped across the countryside like a memory,’ An amazing piece of writing as is My Left Eye with its biblical tone of ritual and symbolism.

I particularly like the details of Marc Parry’s Time Piece where grime and dirt and pieces of skin collected in the watch strap represent physical memories of his father, permanently ‘lodged there from that day to this’. These scrapings are now ‘pieces of time’ that recall not only the gardening tasks but also the ‘small splinters of light’ from his father’s wrist as he worked which impressed his son as ‘Shimmering gold in summer sun’. A beautiful poem which conveys the same sense of nostalgia at the passage of time as does Visiting Laugharne at 55 where the poet observes ‘and now I understand why words lived here,/the air is thick with them,/they hang ripe for the picking.’

Sadayo Takizawa’s highly original poems show a wonderful blend of the surreal and the visionary. My favourite is A Man Who Tried To Walk Through The Wall with its superb description of the man with ‘One foot out of the wall/one arm in the air/Half the body wearing a suit/a hat on the head/sticking out’, but I also love some of the more mystical poems such as Heron’s Dance which conveys such a sense of stillness and veneration throughout in lines like ‘Their feathered garments pure/white as novices/in presence of all the gods.’

Tremendous impact through understatement is achieved by Tina Warren. Her poem Distant is one that will stay in my thoughts for ages. It is not only the man’s voice that is remote as he calls out ‘No foreign muck for dinner’. Empathy and affection seem totally lacking in what little personality he has. Particularly hard hitting are the lines ‘I remind him about my sister’s funeral./He replies that he won’t be well on Friday.’ Even more poignant, and perfectly crafted through understatement, is Letting go where a mother’s fears for her child as he/she grows up are revealed after an incident of binge drinking where she stands by ‘with paramedic and bowl’. The poem ends ‘Now my fear of/having to identify your body/has been increased of late,/by a bare arm and a rose tattoo.’

‘Digging in that carpark nearly bypassed/your discovery’ says Heather Williams in Richard, a poem which appeals to me not only because of my personal interest in the subject but also because of the understated passion shown in the idea of a ‘search for DNA’ which ‘pushes its way down sixteen/generations of a matrilineal line/to meet a childless male and go/extinct.’ Here we have both empathy and compassion as well as poetic technique, qualities shown in other poems such as the moving Sitting in Observance where the poet describes the scene as a calm, white bedroom filled with the scent of roses/round our bodies’. Impact lies in the subsequent lines: ‘Mine feels so alive/whilst you/are one hour dead.’

The last poet in this book (but only because of the ordering and certainly not because of quality), is Hilaire Wood whose ‘silent juxtapositions’ (The Moon and the Beech Tree) form part of a conversation not only with her own ‘deeper self’ (biographies) but with the reader’s as well. I found it impossible to select one favourite poem from this selection, torn between Rapunzel, A Janus Time, and A Tiding of Magpies.

It is probably best to allow the reader of Distillations to make his/her own choices. They are bound to be different to mine. One thing is not in doubt – they are loads to choose from, to read and read again, to share and to enjoy.

Review of Georges Perec is My Hero by Caron Freeborn

Title: Georges Perec is My Hero

Author: Caron Freeborn

Publisher: Circaidy Gregory Press, 2015
ISBN 978-1-906451-65-3

pp 99

Price: £7.99 here

Reviewer: Nick Cooke

51LLcaaLsFL._SL210_[1] Even a cursory reading of Caron Freeborn’s poetic debut will establish some of her many remarkable qualities, chief among them perhaps being her ear for dialogue, her gift for the rhythms of the speaking voice, and an amazingly fluid touch with set forms such as sonnets. Further exploration reveals another key feature – the one that arguably binds this collection together above all others – in her ability to present miniature but always gripping stories of characters caught up in and struggling to contend with the messy and sometimes murderous business of real life as she knows it. From a working-class background, based in Basildon, Essex, she became a fiction writer, publishing two novels in the Noughties, before deciding her true literary metier lay with poetry, and although her previous life as a full-length storyteller may be all in the past now, several of its sub-crafts have undoubtedly lived on.

In almost every poem, fascinating glimpses of characters are given without any pretence that the whole truth of their lives can or should be revealed, any more than in reality we ever know every detail of people’s existence. Freeborn has too much honesty and integrity to try to sell us pat answers to the questions she implicitly asks, and part of the pleasure in re-reading her collection is the effort we willingly make to try to work it all out for ourselves.

The most obvious example is ‘The people in my street’, printed in landscape to encompass views of both sides of the disadvantaged-area street in question, with each house the subject of a mini-story about its inhabitants as seen by a curtain-twitching but perceptive and compassionate neighbour. Others go into more detail, such as ‘Reality Bites’. This poem’s opening reminds me of a technique much favoured in the modern language teaching arena, known as guided discovery, where students are asked to imagine a story based on three apparently disparate phrases or images, between which they have to find connections. In this case Freeborn’s entry to her dramatic monologue is as arresting as any suspense film:

‘I didn’t choose this life. Others did. No
really – it tells you here: theatrical
light (pro), Aer Lingus flights to Dublin (two),
Viagra (large). That’s quantity, not size
I think.’

Despite the poem’s near-three-page length, we never can be quite sure we’ve found the solution to the ongoing puzzle, but it would appear to be the one proposed by Sally, an inquisitive friend of the speaker, as is apparently confirmed when the speaker says, of Sally, ‘Was her solved it.’ Pressed by desperate circumstances into an unconventional career choice, the speaker apparently makes and stars in minimalist porn films in Ireland:

‘I handed over the pills to the two
waiting men (one a scrawny little
thing, not promising, one much burlier)
and I lie on the floor, my legs open,
a virgin bride. Must say, not all it’s cracked
up to be, this porn, this sex, this life. Ah
well.’

The way the phrasal verb ‘cracked up’ is itself cracked up by the overrun line suggests that the character herself is only just holding herself together in the face of the reality she tries to laugh off. And the other split phrase ‘Ah/well’ has us hearing the first word as the start of a scream, only just suppressed by the way it peters out into another commonplace expression. These are typical of Freeborn’s ability to conjure complexity from minimal resources.

A passage in the middle of the poem acts as a key not only to this piece but Freeborn’s work overall:

‘Some lives, you can
see how they’re put together. Though sometimes,
that together doesn’t amount to much
when you pin pattern along chalk lines.’

And the ending comes as what Larkin called ‘a sharp, tender shock’, when the focus shifts to Sally herself, and a life we only partly glimpse:

‘Sally died not long after
that. Never did take her to see my porn film.
They say it’s the things you don’t do that you’ll
regret.’

Once again the enjambments have meaning. ‘After/that’ captures a dignified hesitation, a reluctance to spell out what ‘that’ actually entails, as the deep-down-sensitive speaker attempts to distance herself from her own squalor, while ‘you’ll/regret’ gives special force to the verb, driving home just how much of life is about regretting inaction. And there’s a stolid irony in that ‘Never did’ – as if the film in question were the kind of thing you’d find in a high street cinema. (It very much reminded me of the final line in Tom Waits’ song ‘Frank’s Wild Years’: ‘Never could stand that dog.’) But the most telling moment of pathos comes right at the start, in the characteristically pithy: ‘Others did.’ All too often Freeborn’s characters have little or no control over their own destinies, and operate within constraints they may not even be fully aware of.

Arguably, Freeborn writes best of these constraints when she imposes restrictions of her own on her style. It’s here that the collection’s title comes into full play, because although Freeborn is quoted by editor Mandy Pannett as explaining her choice in terms of ‘Perec’s questions about how we give common things a meaning, how we rescue the details from the assault of the Big Stuff’, we also associate Perec with his own experiments in the sphere of formal constraint, for instance in novels written without the use of a given vowel. Freeborn doesn’t go to quite those Oulipian lengths, but she does frequently turn her versatile hand to set poetic forms. There is a wonderful villanelle entitled ‘Covenant’ in which the key line wittily shifts from ‘just one small kiss’ to ‘one small just kiss’, and, even more impressively, a splendid sestina, one with clear literary/parodic significance (‘My last duchess’), in which she respects all the rhyming intricacies and repetitions of the 39-line form, while maintaining the Browningesque spoken rhythms with her usual dexterity. However, the form Freeborn has truly mastered and shaped to her own often breathtaking ends is the sonnet. The collection ends with a preponderance of these, as though she were consciously returning home after a season abroad among a range of other verse forms. ‘At the Salon’ is a classic instance:

‘Little Kelly shaved my mother’s head. Jew
turned Nazi. Comedic version: small, fat
with panic, veins threaded round imagined
stares, appalled. Kelly’s fingers first
to touch the skin. And my mother: Oh mate,
I’m bald.’

The warm-hearted but sharp-edged humour, both the mother’s and her own, is central to Freeborn’s attitude, as it was in a poem about her father (‘If my dad were here’) earlier in the book:

‘He wouldn’t take my kids to see the
circus: no animal should be made to do
tricks, bleeding disgrace, way it bowed down
to the fat fella. And you couldn’t smoke.

People pretend – look, got to make him right –
to like poems – up their own backsides – bored
to buggery. Fact. They’d like a good spy.’

Although it is rarely safe to assume that references in Freeborn’s work reflect her own life rather than that of a character/persona, in this case the details and opinions do appear to be based on her actual, late dad. Without ever descending to clich‚s of the ‘heart of gold’ and ‘salt of the earth’ variety, she does insist on ending this one with further filial praise and pride:

‘If my dad were here,
he’d tell me no one should own a little
piece of England, and he’d buy a drink for
the poor old sod who, shame, look at them shakes,
couldn’t buy one for himself.’

There’s real beauty and subtlety in the father’s ‘them shakes’ as against his daughter’s studied use of the subjunctive in the first line (and poem title): she’s not likely to have used that ‘were’ back in the old days, before she became a poet. And her father’s combination of unforced generosity and down-to-earth scorn for literary pretension later earns a place in one of his daughter’s best sonnets, ‘Leigh-on-Sea’, good and typical enough to be worth quoting in full:

‘I always want to make a metaphor. Read
the literal into touch; find a shore
against my ruin; bore my friends’ smart eyes
with blind psychotic need until they plead:
Give us the drill, lovely – Have a drink – Lie
among the washed-up dead – Shut it dear or
leave. Ssh- You know I cast my net to catch
a shoal of unlike things. There. That’s agreed.

My dad built boats and took us out to fish
for tiny souls and pinched-tight pinkish crabs
and rocks of many winkles, stuff like that
greenpopped seaweed you can eat. Used to wish
Dad liked poetry, not just salted dabs.
Sometimes a sand flat is just that: sand, flat.’

Incidentally, although Freeborn is not a poet who over-uses direct literary allusions, as if wary of her father’s disapproval from beyond the grave, that ‘shore/against my ruin’ is not only time she invokes that most literarily allusive of poems, ‘The Waste Land’. In ‘At the Theatre’, the line ‘Hurry up please, it’s time’, in the midst of the expletive-ridden resentful fury of a patronised proletarian theatre-goer, tacitly acknowledges that few poets have so consistently drawn on the real language of the working class as Freeborn does, but at least Eliot (rather less well placed than her in terms of social origin) had a stab at it in ‘A Game of Chess’. And in another sonnet, ‘Remedial/Recovery’ it is ‘Four Quartets’ which provides a key source for a tale of artistic frustration:

‘Your brother was born without a tale:
In his beginning was my end. You flew
past us, though I stabbed you with my pen
trying to pin you to the page. I failed.
Schlepped into form, unbrushed, unkissed, askew,
afoot. Prose slips through my fingers like wine.’

As Eliot said, ‘That was a way of putting it, not very satisfactory’ – though possibly more satisfactory to us than the poet, who is so ruthlessly critical a self-reviser that she is bound to end up less than fully satisfied with what she produces. On another level, though, she specifies ‘prose’, as though in valediction to her previous literary genre. Suddenly the sextet’s past tenses, particularly the one which changes the Eliot quote itself (‘In my beginning is my end’), take on new meaning from the personalised context.

Touching and often heart-wrenching as the poems on her parents are, even more centrally Freebornian are those where the speaker is self-evidently a persona and one well out of the ordinary run of life – except that maybe it isn’t quite so far removed as we might like to think. Here’s the opening of yet another sonnet, ‘Life Lessons’:

‘My sons smoke contemplatively, gazing
at the hooker they’ve just killed. Awesome. Proud
of their achievement, they loudly call me
from roast chicken and potatoes and raised
bread dough. Look Mum! I’m amazed, and say so. ‘

If this recalls Tamara, the mother of the mutilating rapists in Titus Andronicus, the culinary allusions take on added meaning. But does the prostitute murder satirise some supposedly acceptable, certainly commercially successful video game – and if so, is that a million miles from what we already have? Again no simple answers are given, and there’s another degree of mystery, in that the contemplatively smoking sons are later revealed as only eight and nine years old.

‘I tuck them up at night,
well-versed in burps and bears and bellicose
giants. Stroke their tangled hair, line up their
teddies in size order, give chase to fright,
lie about heaven. Well done, boys. I choke.’

We are now closer to Violet Kray than Shakespeare, in terms of a mother who dotes on her boys, no matter what. We can’t avoid our hearts going out to the character, even as we recoil from whatever it is that’s so toxic going on under the surface of her life.

I find that Freeborn is at her most compelling when she deals with this fusion of the human and the inhumane, precisely because she hints at such a thin dividing line between them. In perhaps the most hilarious of her poems, ‘Twenty things I’ll never tell you’, she makes sure to stifle the reader’s laughs at the very end:

‘I hate cut flowers though you present them on Fridays;
Last December, I kissed your boss at the Christmas do;
Your mother’s beginning to stink of wee;
It’s gross, the way you eat biscuits sideways..

16) I’m not sure I love our child. Our Lou;
17) I wish she didn’t have Down Syndrome;
18) I wish I hadn’t pinched her last week. And before;
19) I once killed a man in Acapulco;
20) No, it wasn’t Acapulco, it was Basildon.

Is that ‘pinched’ as in ‘painfully squeezed’, or ‘stolen’? The finale is the more chilling because of Basildon being Freeborn’s home town and the subject of several marvellous photos in the book by Steve Armitage. It may be rather easier to ‘go loco’ there than in the more glamorous Mexican location. However, the spirit of Freeborn’s parents, among other figures, hovers over every page as if to provide a counter-balance: the book, for all its depiction of life at its sleaziest and most horrific, is never entirely bleak.

Freeborn is now at work on a blank verse novella, which will presumably continue her unstated mission to preserve the novelist within the poet. To which one can only respond, in a rush of enthused anticipation, ‘La romanciere est morte; vive la poete!’