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Review of Performance Rites by Barry Smith

Performance Rites     Barry Smith   Waterloo Press 2021

A wordsmith has crafted the poems in this collection. Many are notable for their strong opening lines. Bruckner’s Eyeglass, for example, begins ‘At the exhumation of Beethoven’ while Framed announces ‘I feel a painting coming on’. Verbs are equally powerful. I particularly like the description, in Rivers of tractors ‘slurping’ over the land and the account in Between a Rock and a Hard Place of Doctor Johnson ‘jauncing’ the table as he ‘juggled a blear lexicon of unease.’ The poet is also the master of the unexpected. River, the first poem in the book, lulls us into a sense of security with its descriptions of a kingfisher and a ‘warm blue blackbird’s egg’ but then there is the shocking jolt of white-water splattering ‘against the sluice where your cousin drowned.’

Performance Rites is multi-faceted and perfectly crafted with many subtle poetic techniques but I was especially struck by Barry Smith’s use of anaphora, a device which can slide into the tedium of over-repetition, or, as here, enhance and illuminate a whole poem. Here is the ending of a theatrical performance after the audience has been immersed in darkness, tension and catharsis:

and when we have been brought face to face

with truth etched in blood

and all those who were fated to die have died

and everything that had to be said is said

and we have stared together into the dark

just for a moment we let out a breath

(Inflatable Floors)

Even more striking is I will not be silenced, a poem dedicated to the eco-activist Greta Thunberg. Here the reader is presented with a series of timeless, stateless shocking events that create a ‘template of darkness’. The list, encompassing Antigone, Binsey poplars, social media, oil wells, zones of conflict, flash-floods and bushfires, is dispiriting but insight brings a resolution that has a note of defiance and triumph:

            if I do not take up the burden

            if I do not hold high the torch

            who will?

            I will not be silent

            while the earth burns.

Several poems in Performance Rites include mythical and historical referencesthat have their counterpart in present times. In Towards Church Norton traces of the past have mostly disappeared and all that remains is the causeway and the burial ground which is ‘the province of the wind’. The proud days of steam and, further back in time, ‘the linden shields of longships are ‘a long century ago’ but memories persist in the soil, in stone, and in the spray of the sea. The ‘pattern-weave/ the threads of myth and time’ are strong and exist everywhere. (Antigone).

Barry Smith is a poet of the South Downs so this pattern is of particular significance to him. Bosham Harbour is ‘the very epitome of/marine picturesque’ but it also contains echoes of Canute and Harold Godwinson. The ancient city of Chichester remembers John Keats who, with ‘only a few more years to live’ trod its streets ‘encountering these ruins, playing cards, surveying these stones.’ (Sloe Fair Incident).

There are other rich layers in Performance Rites – associations triggered by literature, art, the theatre, science and music ‘that insinuates the pulse’. (Inflatable Floors). One of my favourite poems is On Air, dedicated to the memory of Ted Hughes who was both ‘a bloody crow embodying myth and mystery’ and also a ‘craggy, leather jacketed, dark shepherd of song.’

Other poems appeal to me: The Blue Rider inspired by a Paul Klee painting which becomes ‘a tale of transmutation/ of chlorine, ammonia and mustard gas …of enemy aliens and internment camps’. Then there is the beautiful poem The Thin Places where the repeated line ‘Each Day Writes Itself’ culminates in a self-immersion in this thinness ‘where air and water blend.’

The title poem in this collection, Performance Rites, is both powerful and poignant. In structure and development, it is a masterpiece. It begins in a theatrical setting with a clear statement: ‘The choreography of death is a fine art’. The reader is given directions on how to fall safely, how to unsheathe a knife, is taken offstage to the battle front at Dunsinane, to the monument where Cleopatra laments the ‘darkling shadows’.

Then there is a sudden shift from the theatrical to a game of billiards in a bar room, from the universal to the personal, from rehearsal to reality where the death of an individual cannot be shaped and styled but happens when there is no ‘Grecian tomb or Scottish heathland’ but only a ‘scuffed, burn-marked, indifferent floor.’

‘What vision remains in this temporal age’ is the question posed by the narrator in Pilgrims of Night’. This collection has been published ‘in the lost year of lockdown’ in an age undefined ‘by its faith’. Many are involved in a ‘search for solace’ (From my Window), for

            vistas                           beyond google

                  and microsoft and mac

                        and iphones and tablets

                                    and all the smart stuff

            which hasn’t been invented yet

                        but soon will be

(Earthbound)

There are no clear answers in Performance Rites, only hints and suggestions, the possibility of attaining the ‘unresolved sublime’ which is masked by the mist of half-knowledge and the incomplete. Unfinished, the final poem, leaves us with the ‘adagio’s dissonant chord’, the ‘faltering heart’ but also with a voice where silence in its full perfection may be heard.

Mandy Pannett. January 2022.

Are You Listening?

Title:                Are You Listening?   

Author:           Gill McEvoy   

Publisher:       The Hedgehog Poetry Press

Reviewer:        Mandy Pannett

‘This collection traces the story of a grief which, as P.D. James said of her own grief, instead of diminishing, grew more intense with the passing of time.’ With these words Gill McEvoy introduces her poems in Are You Listening? –a title and a theme to startle and make one pause. A key word, I think, in this description, is ‘trace’. We are not invited to explore the relationship with a husband who has died many years before – ‘three times fourteen years’ – and though we are shown unremitting grief, as readers we can only experience the emotion at a surface level, as an outline, a pale copy, a delicate tracery. There are depths in these poems, huge depths are hinted at, but they are concealed with care.

The language of the first poem Clean Break sets the tone of the collection. Here is the ‘thud’ of the coffin ‘hitting earth’. Out under the Moon has the same air of bleak finality. The moon is like a bare electric light bulb offering a ‘bald light’ on black roofs. No edges are softened, the night is sharp and the cold moon ‘feels nothing’. Neither, in the numbness of grief, does the narrator. The night sky with its stars is a recurring image in the collection but there is no time for romantic star-gazing. The onset of illness is the moment when ‘all the stars went out.’

These are bleak poems poignant in their stark clarity, their pure simplicity. I defy anyone not to be shaken to the core by the final poem, When God Made Time. But grief in this collection also has a gentler, lyrical, mystical side. Stolen made me shiver with its supernatural elements when, on a hot and sleepless night in the hospital, the narrator saw and imagined the sound of a horse and rider ‘high-stepping on the road’, an incident denied by the nursing staff who could not convince the poet who knew that ‘In that wide and empty dawn/they came for you.’

Two other beautiful, lyrical poems are to do with the colour blue. They Say the Last Colour We See is Blue asks ‘Before the light went/what did you think of?’ – another question, another poem directly addressing the husband. After a list of possible images we are left with one that is a ‘perfect blue’ – the forget-me-not, a flower with connotations in its name. Derek Jarman’s Film ‘Blue’ is one of my favourite poems in this collection. I love the images of ‘blue dancing in the rain-logged field’s flood,/ and blue the cold stars whirling in his head.’ This is a poem of silence; the ‘deep blue hush’ of death.

As mentioned, Are You Listening? brims with repeated images and themes. Particularly emotive are a number of poems where birds play a part. Notes from a recorder ‘fly, one by one’ into the thatched roof of a cottage, a tawny owl calls and talks to its mate, a bird-watcher finds it ‘too windy today for birds’ and has to observe clouds and passers-by instead. One of the loveliest poems is Glass Bird in a Shop Window where the narrator stands outside the shop on a day of freezing snow, gazing and gazing at the glass bird, attentive only to her thoughts. Here is my favourite extract:

            Surely the maker of this bird is

            one whose winter months are lived

            among deep silences of snow,

            who understands the blue and purple

            bruise of folds among the drifts,

            who knows

            the strange transparencies of ice,                                                               

            the way light toes on it

            a fragile dance?

Review of The Leading Question by Roger Elkin

Title: The Leading Question
Author: Roger Elkin
Publisher: The High Window 2021
Reviewer: Mandy Pannett

The Leading Question, an outstanding poetry collection, explores aspects of the Great Irish Famine (1845 -51) caused initially by potato blight and exacerbated by prejudice, indifference, neglect and greed. Roger Elkin’s passion for this subject began when he visited the Irish National Famine Museum in the stables of Strokestown Park House. From this came the unanswerable questions ‘how, where, when, what, and why’ (Conacre), questions reflected in Where Now? the striking cover image from Erica Brooke’s artwork.

But all this sounds too easy, an over-simplification of a decade’s obsession and research resulting in a long sequence called That F Word, a vast and complex project about the Irish famine set in a wide historical context.

In 2016 I had the pleasure of interviewing Roger Elkin for a feature in Sentinel Literary Quarterly. In response to my question about the origin of the project he gave this reply:

‘I suppose what attracted me initially, and this sounds trite in the light of what was to follow, was a cluster of words totally new to me and which featured in the museum display cases – “clachan”, “conacre”, “rundale”, “spalpeen”, “booleying”, “creaghting”, “lazy beds”, “tudal”, “boreen”. This sparked off an investigation of the tragic events surrounding the potato blight: the soup kitchens, the task work, meal roads, the evictions, emigration, the coffin ships, government inadequacy and incompetence. Nigh on 2.5 million Irish peasants were displaced, either by famine death or emigration to Canada or America. That’s almost a quarter of the population. And Ireland has yet to recover both in population terms and psychologically from that ravaging and diaspora.’

That F Word still remains to be published in full. Ten year’s passion cannot be easily condensed although David Cooke at The High Window must be congratulated on the remarkable publication that is The Leading Question, Roger Elkin’s thirteenth poetry collection and, arguably, his best.

There are levels of journeys here in this sequence – poetic, historical, counterfactual and contemporary, journeys of suffering and exploitation where voices cry out for justice and help, journeys that end in the silence of shame. A quotation chosen by the author for the preface strikes me as significant. It is from Robert Hughes The Shock of the New:

‘The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible … not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way to pass from feeling to meaning.’

‘From feeling to meaning’ – this is the quality of exploration we have in The Leading Question with poetry that is monumentally profound and beyond words moving, poetry which begins with a potato held in the curve of the hand and encompasses the whole ‘rhythm of living’ through ‘earth stone bone history’.

A great many issues are encountered in this collection. The question of historical truth is one, the way that History’s ‘special slant’ distorts and alters data, the way that bias and self-interest affect the selection and proportion of statistics and artefacts, the presentation of events in hindsight. It’s a riddle, says the author in the title poem The Leading Question, ‘where History ends and Literature begins’. Art becomes an issue when, on the one hand, wealthy landowners and politicians are displayed in fine portraits on the walls of their stately homes while the Irish poor are reviled in cartoons as gormless ruffians, ‘simian things.’ (Words … and Pictures).

There were massive economic and social divisions underlying the Irish Famine, divisions highlighted in The Leading Question by the ironic use of footnotes that reveal misconceptions and distorted theories. Social Darwinism, for instance, had its grip on the minds of many nineteenth century thinkers convinced that human beings were subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin perceived in plants and nature. A footnote comment from Thomas Malthus’ essay On the Principles of Population declares that ‘in order to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil’.

This great part of the population, of course, did not include the middlemen or landowners, only the poor. Value was defined in terms of profit. Pigs on an emigrant ship were worth more than passengers. (All Animals Are Equal). The mismatch between wealth and poverty is exemplified in details of a banquet held in Cork which included:

turbot, salmon, lobster salads,
spiced beef, rump of beef,
veal, haunch of mutton, lamb,
hares, tongues, pigeon pies,
chicken, duckling, turkeys,
sponge cakes, jellies, creams, ices …
champagne, claret, port.
(Dog’s Dinner)

All this was happening while those reduced to beggary existed on boiled cabbage leaves every other day and if none of these were available then they ate ‘dead dogs, nettles, leather-belts,/ rats, grass.’ (Whereas).

And what of responsibility? What of empathy? Roger Elkin shows us a government in London composed of absentee landlords living in vast Palladian mansions with ballrooms, libraries and huge gardens and all of these people constantly passing the buck, shifting blame. Indian Buck is a particularly virulent, shocking poem as is To him who asks where, in response to a Government directive that ‘The food best suited for free relief is soup’, Crown Agent Knox, roster in hand, officiously organises the distribution to children ‘wild-eyed/in their thinness’ while the Reverend Lloyd and wife Eleanor smile ‘benignly’ at a distance.

The Leading Question is a book with impact. Fascinatingly written in a variety of voices and forms so that interest never flags, it nevertheless is appalling in its details and shockingly relevant in the light of recent and current histories and thought. An example is the comparison between the Irish girls who were forced to sell their hair to wigmakers in order ‘to stay alive’ and the horrors of genocide in Treblinka where bins were piled high with the hair of dead women, hair that could be used for ‘padding mattresses, filling pillows’. (Bills of Entry, Liverpool Customs House – 1848).

In his interview for Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Roger Elkin considered the implications of such issues by referring to contemporary Famine letters from the Strokestown priest, Father Michael McDermott, who described the situation as a ‘holocaust’ – a term more usually associated with later historical events. This, he went on to say:

… raises the issue that the political mismanagement of the English government’s dealing with its first colony had an element of genetic cleansing. It is matters like this that give the events an immediate relevance. For me, remembering G. B. Shaw’s “poverty is the greatest crime”, the writing became obligatory. I also made links with later historical events, and famines in other parts of the world – hence the inclusiveness of the title That F Word.

The displacement of people is another ongoing cruelty. ‘Destitute Irish poor’, victims of eviction, were forgotten British citizens, ‘itinerant beggars/ that most of England/ thought it wise to deny’

and not Romanians, Albanian, Iranians,
Serbs, Slavs, Poles, Czechs,
not Bangladeshi Muslims,
not Hindi, not Sikh,
not Chinese cockle-pickers,
not Vietnamese gagging for air
in the backs of container wagons
(Spalpeens)

The poem’s list goes on, names falling like hammer blows, a list that finishes with ‘et cetera.’ This is a story without end where ‘everyone’s tomorrows’ are ‘garnered away’. (Sloe Progress).

The Leading Question is Roger Elkin’s masterpiece – or maybe three-quarters of a masterpiece that needs the rest of the long sequence to be fully complete. It is an immensely important, compulsively readable collection. At the end we are left, not with hope, not with any solutions, only silence engraved on a ‘cenotaph of forgetting’, a silence ‘lying deep beneath skin’. (This Silence).