Title: Sheer Poetry
Author: Roger Elkin
Publisher: Dempsey and Windle, 2020
Reviewer: Jocelyn Simms
A striking image on the cover of Sheer Poetry, Roger Elkin’s latest poetry collection, shows a climber clinging to a bleak rock face as he makes his way to the summit. This photograph evokes for me the tenacity and linguistic adroitness of Elkin’s writing. The title poem, Sheer Poetry: Considering the Egyptian Position reveals the desire and determination of the writer: ‘wanting to own it all / if only for the moment, not let go.’ – thus echoing the courage and commitment of the climber.
The first poem introduces us to Elkin’s love of precision in the use of language. Being Two-faced reflects on the ability to look, sometimes conveniently, in two directions at once: ianua the gateway signals January, named after Janus who looks both forwards and backwards. Elkin’s veneration of language immediately surfaces with a litany of names from different countries and cultures with nomenclature for this first month of the year: wulfmanoth, tammikuu. month of slicing wind.
In Pencil Drawing of a girl, circa 1912, partially erased we are offered a tender pause to catch the glimmer of a likeness. Somethings have been
to smudged Summer clouds . . .
Erased to disguise failures?
how we mythologize
in recreating the past . . .
How we draw to cover the tracks.
In Fishing the Khabur River, Syria we learn how this once sacred waterway is now fished for bodies. Understated language makes the discovery all the more gruesome and poignant: an unforgettable description of the waste and cruelty of war.
In another war we meet the Yanks be-bopped, jitterbugged and smooched and later discover the consequences of trading favours for fags, gums and stockings: as someone wryly japes, you Don’t get owt for nowt.
In The Longest Day our all-time great film stars trawl through the D-Day landings as men are strafed in the vastness of sand but years later exposed in slow-motion monochrome our hero meets that terrible lonely vigil waiting by a hospital bed, your moment’s longest day.
There is a richness throughout the collection, whether cameos of neighbours and relatives or gritty descriptions of political confrontation. In Ireland’s Blight we get a glimpse of the terrible vindictiveness of one nation against another. Oliver Cromwell justifies the massacre of children in 1649 at Drogheda whilst Delia Smith’s tips on cooking cabbages is used as a coruscating forensic analogy for the Great Irish Famine. Roger Elkin is never one to flinch or look away but stakes out the territory with scrupulous care.
Elkin’s gift is to call forth a fresh slant to our awareness, appreciation and understanding of the world and our place in it.
Sheer Poetry showcases all the abilities of this widely-published and deservedly multi-prize-winning poet, a superb collection – buy it for your bookcase and savour.
Jocelyn Simms, November 2020