John Mee reviews ‘Long Pass’ by Joey Connolly

 

 

The author of this cerebral and assured debut is the joint editor of a magazine called Kaffeeklatsch. Its manifesto suggests (in the midst of a post-modern welter of interlocking footnotes) that the reader of poetry ‘must be like the cat, flirt with everything’. Long Pass offers a wide variety of attractions up to which the reader may sidle and against which to rub his or her back.

One of the themes of the book is poetry itself and its making, the mutability of the words with which ‘[t]he darkness is swarming’ (‘The Draft’). Connolly is interested in ‘[t]he orthodontic meddling of language/ with the world, its snaggling malocclusions’: ‘[Untititled]’ (sic). At times, his language mimics the sound of nature, as in ‘Liguria’, which captures ‘the plump primary note/ of a woodpigeon swelling rhythmically into the air’:

 

‘ the glue goes. We pool so, it

schools us. The rules: yes, they fooled you, accruing …’

Demonstrating the scale of its ambition, the collection includes ‘reworkings’ of poems in six European languages. Connolly presents two new versions of each poem (except in the case of Rozhdestvensky’s ‘History’). In each case, the second version departs from the original to a much greater extent than the first. In his second version of Christine de Pizan’s ‘Third Ballad’, which tells the story of the drowned lovers Hero and Leander, the poet addresses de Pizan across the centuries:
‘Listen, Frenchy: the gap between our tongues

is just the blackest water, nothingy and unbreathable’.
The business of reworking is fraught since ‘ideas have words/ and words ideas and they get/ everywhere, sand in sandwiches/ at the beach’: ‘An Ocean,’.

And if poetry and translation weren’t difficult enough, there are also the poet’s ‘financial/ and romantic perplexities’ (‘Why?’), ‘a stack/ of unread books, the constant dull subpoena of alcohol/ and tobacco’ (‘Average Temperature at Surface Level’). An unconsummated love affair is recounted in ‘A Brief Glosa’, having been foreshadowed in earlier poems:
‘Twenty-four days, really, all told,

straggling Manchester’s dive-bars until five for the pretext of drink

between the kitsch and neons as if there was no agony

keeping our bodies apart.’

 

The poet stands at the edge of a city bridge in ‘I am Positioned’:

 

‘                 thinking of the woman who has asked

for us to keep apart, for two months, while she

 

works things out: the woman I love. Although

I didn’t, I suppose, make that clear.’

 

A defining feature of the collection is its willingness to engage with philosophical concepts. For example, ‘to the materialist’, Connolly says, ‘if you can’t ride two horses at once/ you shouldn’t be in the circus’: ‘Of Some Substance, Once’. The book’s centrepiece is ‘Average Temperature at Surface Level’, an extended meditation on information and human attention, and the relationship between seeing, describing and remembering. The ‘tone veers uncontrollably’ from abstraction – ‘object/ bleeds into type, the starvation-ration of quiddity’ – to the helpfully concrete: ‘new, still-wet permanent marker is the best plan/ for erasing old permanent marker’.

Connolly’s work places more demands on the reader than straightforward lyric poetry – e.g. I found myself looking up words such as ‘doxological’, ‘dialetheic’ and ‘ideolected’. Any poetry that is intelligent is in danger of being perceived as overly clever but, for me, Long Pass generally avoided this trap. Admittedly, the line may be crossed in ‘Poem in Which Go I’: ‘There but for the goes of going walks our lord. There/ but for the gauze of saying so goes all’. Another risky moment comes in ‘Fantasy of Manners’, where the poet flagellates himself in Latin for being too intellectual, albeit with deflating mentions of ‘bollocks’ and ‘shite’.

The title of the collection can be linked to the reference, also in ‘Fantasy of Manners’, to the poet’s ‘own hailmary explanatory’ – a ‘Hail Mary’ is a long pass in American football which is unlikely to find a receiver. The pessimism implicit in the title of Long Pass is belied by the excellence of the work it contains. The collection is a substantial achievement, which repays repeated reading. Ultimately, as reflected in his concluding poem, ‘Last Letter from the Frontier’, Connolly’s tenacity wins a strange victory over despair:

 

‘I know that we have years – perhaps forever – to wait

until the drawling missionaries and the thrill and the skin drums

of pirates. And until then, I am bricking myself in.’

 

 

 

 

 

John Mee is a poet and academic from Cork in Ireland. He won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2015 and the Fool for Poetry International Chapbook Competition in 2016. His chapbook, From the Extinct, is published by Southword Editions. www.johnmeepoetry.com https://www.munsterlit.ie/Bookstore Other Titles.html Twitter: @JohnMeeLaw

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For Mental Health Awareness Week: Catherine M Brennan reviews ‘Caldbeck’ by Jenny Pagdin

 

 

 

 

Pagdin’s pamphlet, Caldbeck presents poems which are unflinching in focus, and confidently varied in form, as she explores her experience of sudden postnatal psychosis. The poems are thoughtfully arranged to trace the emotional and physical demands of her experiences from early concerns for the health of her unborn child, through to her time in, and beyond Caldbeck psychiatric ward.

The pamphlet begins with a ‘Definition of Love’. Compressed meaning is introduced in the opening poem through a reference to related Old English words for ‘leave’ and ‘lief’, and notions of what is left, abandoned or desired run through the collection. This is followed by the first definition of the ‘Verbal Noun:  something known by its actions’: a significant first definition, given the lack of agency and control Pagdin later recounts.  Within a few lines we have: ‘the press of breath against a diver’s chest…’. The image is unexpected, and Pagdin moves deftly from lighter, airier images to concluding lines of love like ‘bulbs at night…warm and sure; /rubbed roots which intertwine in earth.’  After this earthy reassurance, she concludes with a sharp caesura and ‘Anonym: heartache.’  The controlled lineation and language keep the poem clear of sentimentality, and this sets the tone for the pamphlet.

Pagdin presents the dislocating nature of her experience through imagery, but also through the lens she offers in the centrally placed ‘The Radio Times’, where she presents a series of distortions, a world in which sounds ‘Cannot be switched off’, and ‘wedding rings are 50p’: everything is too intense; nothing has real value.  The facing page contains two assured, tautly one-line poems which mirror each other, conveying the alienating, disabling nature of the psychosis.

Pagdin emerges from her journey with a haiku in praise of Japanese pots which are ‘more valuable cracked.’ The concluding ‘A Definition of Hope’ contrasts earlier images: from the heavier, brutal sense of hopelessness in ‘Crista’, where she states that by the fourth week she was ‘Finally broken – as a horse is broken in—‘ to the fragile birth of a butterfly with ‘ its wings still budded and moist’. The details are raw and precise, and hope shimmers uncertain, juxtaposed against ‘Antonym: nothing.’ It is a fitting, sober end-note for a pamphlet which explores a devastating experience with grace, and with tempered, spare diction.

 

 

On Whom the Rain Comes Down
Title from Thomas Hardy’s ‘An Autumn Rain-Scene’

People do say never to touch a tent
that’s heavy with water;
I barely even knew a woman could
get ill and hurt her child.

They said our baby could have Downs,
for six months our odds were penciled on the wardrobe,
while my auntie, cousins, friends,
succumbed to cancers, fraud or death.

They said our baby might have infantile hypotonia,
then he fainted and wouldn’t come round,
I was sick and fainted and was sick, sick, sick
and still it rained down, crosshatching the sky.

 

 

Jenny Pagdin studied BA English at Oxford University and MA Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She lives with her husband and son in Norfolk where she works as a charity fundraiser. Her first pamphlet, Caldbeck, with Eyewear Publishing, was shortlisted for the Mslexia pamphlet competition (2017) and selected by the Poetry Book Society (2018). She won the Café Writers Norfolk prize 2018.

You can order your copy of Caldbeck by Jenny Padgin, published by Eyewear, here: https://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/products/caldbeck-by-jenny-pagdin

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Sue Burge reviews ‘Bottle’ by Ramona Herdman

 

 

 

This beautifully judged pamphlet explores the complexities of a personal relationship with British drinking culture and those who inhabit it.  The subject of alcohol for poets is not a new one, and the influence of alcohol on poets has been well-documented, but this slim volume does something refreshingly original with its subject matter.  Herdman introduces us to a cast of diverse characters to explore the ups and downs of alcohol, including the idea that its attraction might run in families.  Her carefully chosen words are non-judgemental.  Empathy, affection and humour bubble under the surface of every poem.

There are so many standout poems it’s tricky to select just a few.  There’s much to enjoy in Yes which contains both sly humour and sexiness, a trademark of Herdman’s poetry.  An off-licence employee is described as ‘not beautiful’, but a tempter all the same with his cheap bottle of pink fizz, ‘so yes, I will run away with you/at least as far/as the bins round the back/with the rest of the bottle.’

She’s not herself is a delicate portrait of an intriguing woman, ‘take her hand and see stars/gather round her head like midges’ exhorts Herdman.  It is lines like this which show Herdman at her most insightful, skilfully drawing us into a more complete understanding of a world full of spontaneity and the crippling highs and lows of dependency.

At the heart of the work are poems which evoke the narrator’s relationship with her alcohol-dependent father, now deceased.  In Drinking Partner, a poignant meditation on loss and absence, a glass of Bells is left out ‘like kids,/I hope, still do for Father Christmas. It makes/the morning smell of you.  This image is so apposite, it still brings a lump to the throat even after many re-readings.  In My Father’s Cough, age brings increased empathy as a bout of bronchitis makes the narrator want to ‘cough my heart up.  I want to get to the bit where I find him/on the garden bench,/tea steaming in weak sun,/the first fag of the day settling his chest.’

 A particularly striking poem is Mes Braves.  Who hasn’t cringed at the sight of groups of young girls heading off clubbing in skimpy clothes on freezing nights?  Herdman turns these thoughts on their head with a praise poem, ‘It’s freezing wet and for you it’s June./You make a mirrorball out of the rain.’

Herdman’s language is clear, striking and effective.  Each word is carefully chosen for maximum impact.  Images are used sparingly, thus packing a stronger punch.  Each line-break is carefully considered to draw the reader through an expertly controlled flow of language.  The varied poetic forms and attention to pacing are a masterclass in how a pamphlet should be put together.  I urge you to read this, to learn more about temptation, love, chance and familial affection and, above all, to join this cast of finely drawn drinkers, albeit temporarily, perhaps even soberly, in their colourful and wholly engaging world.

 

 

Order your copy of Bottle (Happenstance) by Ramona Herdman here: www.happenstancepress.com

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Alan Price Reviews ‘In the Scullery with John Keats’ by Louise Warren

 

 

I’m fortunate to live in Camden and be very close to Keats house in Hampstead. This September I was on holiday in Rome and visited the house where Keats died and also the English cemetery where he’s buried. An image of the young, poor, battered by illness Keats resonates for me in those locations, whilst on Hampstead Heath I conjure up the Cockney poet out for a lively walk.

When I read Louise Warren’s In the Scullery with John Keats I encountered four poems where Keats, flitting round like a mischievous ghost, is re-located to a contemporary North London and Devon. In the book’s title poem, Keats comes into deep focus with the objects in his house. A dead rabbit in the kitchen swings on its hook. Keats startles you by daring the poet to touch it. It swings as “the camera missed a trick”. Then, in the next poem, he’s in the garden and after that the bedroom. At each dislocation, Warren makes you feel the increasing force of his presence. An erotic rolling over in a field of wheat into a Devon sea occurs. Warren’s imagination takes flight and she will “roll beneath him like a pin.” In the last Keats poem, In the Underground with John Keats a train pulls in at Chalk farm tube station. At this “he leant against the mast of a ship / he watched the moon rise up in a slop basin / it was all tales to him and poems.”

What’s so terrific about these Keats poems are their cheekiness, strangeness and subversive antics. It’s as if we where watching an old Ken Russell TV arts drama about a Romantic poet. All that’s missing is a wild music soundtrack. However Louise Warren’s often long rhythmic lines supply their own musical pulse.

“I smelt the heat of his arms the soft dip below his throat”

Even longer musical lines are conveyed in other poems. It’s brilliantly on show in the very moving, Sedgemoor Ward. This poem about a dying man (her father?) observing the hospital ward and the view of the countryside from his window ends on a note of hope.

“We gather our things
Outside the water and light make their strange perpetual motion.”

The elongation of that final line beautifully expresses the continuous flow of life still continuing in the face of an approaching death. It comes back full circle to the water and light mentioned in the poem’s first line. Nature may remain cyclic and indifferent. But not the poet. She has to record our very human act of carrying on.

The Language of Flowers is an eloquent example of how Warren can stretch out a fine lyrical line, only to follow it with words that collar it back to a sensual apprehension of a botanist’s study, when he enters with grass soaking through his boots.

It, a slight weak rain swelling the air to a woollen thickness.
Unlike the air in his study which is proper, as paper is, and the vapour
Of thin soup. An uncoaxed fire. A fear of sweating.”

This causes the poem to abruptly stop. Fear. Sweating. Anxiety is manifest. Then the poem re-commences with an amazing sensual assault.

“Wild Honeysuckle arouses his nostrils, and sharp unmade twigs
Dig into his skin, lift the hair from his scalp, disrobe him.”

Warren’s poems are elegantly paced and tightly worded constructions. Her subject matter is eclectic. A dead poets visitations, the sky at night, the dance of a curtain, country common names, John Tenniel’s drawing of the white rabbit for Lewis Carrols’s Alice, balconies at night and gall wasp samples. These are poems that are equally disconcerting and engaging, tender and prickly; both influenced by fairy tales and nursery rhymes that can morph into menace and sudden darkness. Or humour and tenderness that root out an uncertain light in the dark. Louis Warren has a highly original take on her invented worlds. She’s a demanding poet. That’s a big positive in my book. You have to make the imaginative leap and succumb to her style. Yet the effort proves richly rewarding.

Like her previous book, A Child’s Last Picture Book of the Zoo, the Keats titled pamphlet shows Warren’s continuing strong development. She’s a remarkable writer, not for everyone, but definitely for my taste. A memorably haunting voice in the current poetry scene producing highly individualistic work, that’s very good indeed.

 

 

 
Order your copy of  In the Scullery with John Keats (Cinnamon Press)  by Louise Warren here: www.cinnamonpress.com

 

 

 

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Editor Deborah Alma on the #MeToo Anthology, for International Women’s Day

 

 

#UsTogether

I remember back  in October, listening to some of those many conversations that started up in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and was surprised to hear male news reporters being genuinely shocked when they asked women politicians, actors and media colleagues if they’d ever experienced anything similar, and being told ‘Of course’ and ‘Yes, many times’ and ‘Every woman’.

It prompted me to ask my women friends to add their name on my Facebook page if they hadn’t experienced any form of sexual harassment in their lives and I was surprised to find that of the 200 women that started to share some of their stories , 2 or 3 were able to say that it had never happened to them. My surprise was not that there were so few, but that there were any at all. I wasn’t even aware of the #MeToo thing happening over on Twitter at that point, but as it turned out, very many women were sharing their stories.

I’m a poet, have edited a couple of poetry anthologies, and many of the women on that thread were fellow poets and I knew that some of them had written about domestic and sexual abuse and it occurred to me to collect some of these stories as a poetry anthology.

It has been quite an extraordinary book from start to finish. I asked for submissions through FB and Twitter and received over 600 poems; some of the poems now in the book I already knew and actively sought out …Sarah Doyle’s #MeToo for example I knew from its appearance in The Morning Star and its being shared tens of thousands of times on Twitter, as well as US poet Emily Sernaker’s poem Now When I Think About Women from Poet’s Respond which was also a social media phenomena.

With almost every submission came a covering letter that was often harrowing to read; stories of rape and domestic abuse, a 17 year old girl already a victim of rape and writing about it, betrayals of trust, and declarations of extreme bravery in the sharing of the work. Many of the e-mails required long back and forth conversations as you might imagine, a hand-holding exercise and tenderness both in the saying yes, but also in the I’m so sorry but for reasons of space, or the book as a whole I can’t accept your poem… I felt the responsibility terribly.  I wanted to put the big arms of the book around each and every poet. This was so so difficult to do. I am so delighted that each poet who was long-listed for the book has been given the opportunity to publish their work courtesy of Vik Bennett of Wild Women Press and they can be found here.

Another remarkable thing has been the extraordinary generosity of other women. My good friend and publisher Nadia Kingsley (while we were swimming) offered to upload it to her publishing software and to give me an ISBN, but in the end she has been there at every step of the way, working so hard getting it right and proudly owning the book as part of her Fair Acre Press. A young artist Jessamy Hawke wanted to donate artwork for the project and her ink drawings head each of the 7 sections. My friend Sandra Salter did all of the artwork for the striking cover which she drew when she was angry!

And the final remarkable thing has been, again through a Facebook group made up from the artists and most of the 80 poets in the book, how everyone there feels so strongly about the book being theirs. It feels to me as though we are a string of paper dolls, stretched out and holding hands as we bravely put our names to our several parts of the whole.

And it is brave. We are often having conversations to support each other as we worry about reading these words in public, worry about our families discovering that there has been rape in our past, worrying what our exes might do or say, or our students, our children…
It has been the most enormous privilege to be part of bringing this book into existence. I hope that it will be received with the tenderness it deserves.

#MeToo- rallying against sexual harrassment- a women’s poetry anthology is available from all good bookshops and online

 

 

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Richard Hawtree reviews ‘Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy’ by Dónall Dempsey

 

 

Image result for Gerry Sweeney"s Mammyby Dónall Dempsey

This is a book of great clarity. Its poems draw strength from the twin securities of family and place before striking out boldly to engage with themes of death and loss. Dónall Dempsey’s new collection deftly shows readers how: ‘[t]he flag of self unfurls / snaps into the lost moment.’ (‘Walking from the Rising Sun to Kildare Town’). This is especially apparent in poems like ‘Follow the Leader’ where the writer’s daughter prompts this unfurling, teaching him not simply to recognise but: ‘to be / the world that she / can see / (half invention / half discovery) …’ Many of Dempsey’s poems take up this ontological challenge, asking us to consider how our being in the world is shaped by complex interaction with close relatives and friends. In short, Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy celebrates our fundamental interconnectedness, the strength of that human chain outlasting the home place or family tree. ‘Journey of a Smile’ finds just such continuity behind each smile in an old photo album:

It pays no attention
to gender

or place or place
in history.

Different people
lay claim to it.

Each generation
borrows it
[…]

This perspective ensures that the elegant poems of personal recollection, found throughout the book, work cumulatively to produce a thoroughly inclusive experience for readers.
But above all else, this is a book that revels in the mysterious power of words, in the conviction that: ‘language is lava // the mind is molten / always flowing’ (‘Hithering and Tithering Waters Of..’). And so a pyroclastic flow from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake occasionally disrupts these texts, enriching their poetic soil with a thunderword ending in ‘[…] TOOHOOHOORDENENTHURNUK!’ (‘How Not To Swear When One Is Swearing’). Indeed, thunder itself is an important unifying device in this collection, a marker of self-discovery that is frequently linked to the poet’s acknowledgment of the human. Early in the collection we read:

Oh what a thing it was
being human.

I, in due course
was an about-to-be

thunderstorm
clumping about the evening
[…]
(‘O Words are Poor Receipts for What Time Hath Stole Away’)

Later, the poem ‘In the Mythology of Foxes’ offers the same semantic pairing in counterpointing an uncle’s shooting of a fox: ‘the fearful thunder // of his gun / had ended everything’ with his nephew’s shocked response: ‘trying to comfort her / with his human tears.’ Many of the poems in Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy seek to recover this humanitas at the heart of things. It is present in the frequent intertextual allusions to Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, and Chaucer. In ‘Till Human Voices Wake Us’ even snow takes part in the search:

the human
tears in its eyes
the snow smiles

snow now
both
inside/outside
[…]

This is a book of great humanity; in ‘Hithering and Tithering Waters Of..’ the poet reads Joyce to his daughter as a bedtime story. Her response will be shared by many readers of this fine volume:

Beside the tickling waters of.
Beside the chuckling waters of.
Beside the laughing waters of.

She loves the music of it all.

 

Richard Hawtree‘s poems have appeared in British and Irish literary magazines including: The Stinging Fly, Banshee, SOUTH, and The Penny Dreadful. He has taught medieval literature at University College Cork and Creative Writing at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey.

 

Order your copy of Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy by Dónall Dempsey here:    http://www.dempseyandwindle.co.uk/books-by-donall-dempsey.html

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Konstandinos Mahoney reviews ‘Sunshine at the end of the world’ by Chris Hardy

 

 

Sunshine at the end of the world, Chris Hardy’s fine fourth collection, has time hanging over the forty nine assembled poems like the sword of Damocles; but rather than casting a shadow, Hardy’s awareness of the impermanence and fragility of things permeates his work and gives it meaning – through acknowledging the finite, he illuminates the pathos of transience; at the end of Hardy’s world is the liberating light of the Greek islands, not the opaque gloom of Hades.

‘Pulse,’ the first poem in the collection begins at the beginning with a newborn baby, /all there is for you is your/immortal, unopened second/.  From there the poems move backwards and forwards through time and memory, Europe and Asia, human and animal, mining the depth and excavating the span of a life well lived and observed. ‘Deadelus’ looks afresh at the myth through the three classic partitions of time; It is good/ to live in the moment, but what if the moment/ is no good?//Then you must live/in the dark/cluttered labyrinth/of your past,/or the empty balcony/high on a mountain/that you call the future/…. /after all that is what Icarus did -/dive off/into his future./ In, ‘The dustmen laugh at last year’s diary,’  the paradox of non-linear time, reminiscent of Eliot’s Four Quartets, is simply but profoundly explored, /Birds sing before dawn/I was dead before I was born.

There is no superfluous ornamentation in these poems, couplets, tercets, short, clipped lines, Doric not Corinthian, rarely spilling over to a second page. Imagery is fresh, original, arresting, never there just for show, always an integral part of what the poem is saying; the title poem, for example, describes a graveyard where the dead are buried, standing up, /cold, mud-clamped sentries/knee deep in the water table/. The second verse describes a burial at sea, with white flowers sprinkled on the surface looking from below like stars – a fearless and beautiful imagining of one’s own final ritual of departure. In ‘On schedule,’ Hardy uses a deserted airport at night as a metaphor of the heavenly gates, a portal to the other side, Saint Peter as checker of souls replaced by a custom’s officer who waves him on to the other side – a memorable and haunting poem for frequent flyers.

The poems, even the very short ones, are often structured around a narrative, a memory, an event, and it is Hardy’s skill that these poems, though brief and sparse, pack a powerful emotional punch; in, ‘Going for a walk.’, a poem of only sixty words, the pain and guilt of not hastening to a mother’s death bed is conveyed with maximum impact.

Hardy is expert at ending a poem, an elusive skill, for example in ‘Auspices’ and ‘Thread’, and the moving, ‘Catch it up,’ where the poet concludes by telling a child that if he ever catches a little bird in his hands, /the frightened heart/beating beneath your fingers/will make you/let it go, an ending as moving as it is beautiful and true, encapsulating the tender humanity that runs through this poignant collection.

Hardy, a philhellene, brings the crystal light and myth of Greece to many of the poems.  Among the Greek poems is ‘Borderline,’ a vivid evocation of a hillside nunnery; as Edward Lear painted striking watercolour scenes of Ottoman Greece, so Hardy conjures Greece in verse, an atmospheric description of an Orthodox nunnery in its mountain setting above the sea. The poem centres on a minor incident – a tourist being hushed by a nun protective of her sisters’ need for silence; but just as the poem seems to be over, the poet glances down at, /the narrow sea far below/where refugees drown, trying to reach the shore/ – a scene reminiscent of Breughel’s, ‘The Fall of Icarus,’ and Auden’s  ekphrastic poem, a tragedy, a drowning happening at a distance without anyone noticing; in Hardy’s poem, imagined survivors vanish into the ‘dark green, scented forest.’

Hardy’s tender and affecting collection feels like an elegy, a beautiful and accepting celebration of what was, what is and what is to be – a poet writing at the peak of his powers, ‘Sunshine at the end of the world,’ is a highly readable collection of humanity, compassion and wisdom.

 

Sunshine at the end of the world by Chris Hardy is published by Indigo Dreams.  Order your copy here: http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/chris-hardy/4593968553

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