The lover of poetry unfamiliar with the work of Vladislav Khodasevich could have no better introduction than this. A detailed introduction by Michael Wachtel, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Princeton, gives a clear cultural and historical context to one of the twentieth century’s more overlooked Russian poets. The bilingual texts are presented with clarity, and the translator’s notes and preface mean that even the most English-bound reader can begin to appreciate Khodasevich’s wordplay and euphony in his own language.
Daniels’ purpose in translation is ‘always to provide a satisfactory poem in English that conveys as much as possible of Khodasevich’s intended meaning’ and to judge his translation as far as I am qualified, I can say that I find his renditions of Khodasevich’s words intensely satisfying. His real love of rhyme is more than respect for the Russian voice he finds himself using. In the couplets of ‘The Way of the Sower’, Daniel’s balance between full rhyme and half rhyme points the sense with the lightness of a real craftsman’s touch.
Khodasevich’s pride in his nationality and his desire to address his people as a national poet are anything but pompous or bombastic. The meditative, pastoral tone of ‘The Way of the Sower’ lends a wistfulness to his words, considering the date of its original composition: December 1917.
The path my soul will take is like the way of the grain:
it goes down to the dark – to die, and live again.
And you my native country, and her people, you
will perish and survive, after this year is through -
Because this single wisdom is given us to obey:
everything that lives shall go the seedcorn’s way.
There’s plenty of evidence of the path of Khodasevich’s soul in this book. He writes satirically, elegiacally, nostaglically, and then with a joyous self-satisfaction in the world around him. He writes about writing, but only intently as his concern with the smell of fish and the feel of a monkey’s palm. He is concerned with himself, but not to the point of narcissism. Despite his dry tone, he retains an innocence about his own self, puzzled, vulnerable and open. He is intensely proud of his nationality and prouder still of his poetic vocation. To read along is to travel a little of his path through a dark time for a creative spirit.
The Monkey is a display of Khodasevich’s delight in the absurd realities around him and his ability to lead his reader on a provoking train of thought from antiquity to the contemporary. The poem’s terse beginnings (‘It was hot. Forests were burning. Time | Tediously dragging.’) give way to a stream of bright description and story-telling, before the poet’s comparisons and reflections on the animal’s friendly greeting become a rapture of hopefulness.
This animal, destitute, called up in my heart
the sweetness of a deep and ancient legend.
Yet when the monkey and her keeper travel on in the summer evening, Khodasevich returns to his matter-of-fact tone: ‘That was the day of the declaration of war.’ He invites his reader to join him in wondering about the memorability of his story. Without the ability to pinpoint the time and say, ‘That was the day…’, would even an emotion as intense as he relives be remembered?
I find the poet’s invitation throughout this book. His choice of subjects are not bound in historical context or foreign imagery and his concerns with his own identity, vocation and love of the world are all expressed on a personal scale. Without a doubt, Peter Daniel’s deft translations do a great of this work for the English reader. The pitch of the lexicon he chooses lets every egregious word play a part in giving an image of the writer, and the translator’s notes do a fine job of letting us share in his personal pleasure. Daniel’s desire for more of us to appreciate Khodasevich, combined with the poet’s own gentle, but intense invitation to see through his eyes, bring a real generosity to this relatively small collection.
Martin Noutch is a teacher and writer based in London. He particularly enjoys writing interactive fiction.
Vladislav Khodasevich Selected Poems is translated from the Russian by Peter Daniels and published by Angel Classics (2013) Order your copy here: www.angelclassics.com
Although Ken Head’s poems have appeared widely in print magazines, online and in various chapbooks, Prospero’s Bowl is a long overdue full collection. In ‘Passing Through’, its opening poem, Head’s strengths as a poet are immediately apparent. Within the compass of a blank sonnet, a form he frequently uses to good effect, we accompany the poem’s protagonist on an early morning walk. Matter of fact and self-effacing, its opening lines set the scene with a minimum of fuss: ‘In the morning early he walked down / the mountainside from the old village.’ Soon, however, we are drawn on as precisely observed details accumulate:
The narrow donkey track, winding serpentine
and stony across the slope of the land,
kept the glitter of the sea below dark cliffs
always in his eyes. He breathed in thyme
and the scent of fresh-cut grass where men
with scythes, who nodded quiet greetings
as he passed, had cleared the path while
he was still asleep.
Mirroring the twists and turns of the narrow path, Head’s sinuous syntax is also sustained by its musicality and the rhythms of his language. Reading the poem aloud, one admires its cadences and the texture of its sounds: the contrast between long and short vowels, the repetition of sibilants and liquids. Frequently inspired by landscapes at home and abroad, many of the poems in Prospero’s Bowl meditate upon mankind’s relationship with the natural world; and this is a theme which gives the poet plenty of scope to indulge his philosophical bent and to create a poetry of perception that is, at times, reminiscent of the work of that fine and somewhat undervalued poet Charles Tomlinson. In ‘By Haweswater’ Head captures aural impressions and beautifully evokes the quality of a silence: ‘That there’s no voice, not even birdsong, is what he notices, / that the silence remains untouched by any of the noise / he carries with him.’ In this poem, consisting of two capacious stanzas composed in long loping lines of anything up to sixteen syllables, Head’s technical skill is impressive, but even more so is a Wordsworthian reflectiveness as he moves beyond the limits of mere observation:
Years ago, he wouldn’t have, but time’s more powerful now
and landscapes like this, so filled with emptiness,
as mysterious as death. No compromise, they say, keep moving.
The stoicism that is hinted at here is given further expression in ‘Stepping Off’, a tour de force consisting of three fifteen line stanzas depicting a bleak landscape shrouded in fog, a harsh world where men have struggled to survive:
Making and mending,
hauling supplies, turning backbreaking
labour into food, must all have been grist
to the mill in the battle against failure
of belief, a deal with the gods that might make
the world more knowable, less pitilessly
Equally impressive is ‘Something to Measure against’, a study of poor villagers who eke out their living in a parched landscape where water has to be rationed: ‘No water now / until late afternoon and nothing to be done / but study patience’; while in ‘Along Ashwell Road’, where he describes some woodland, ‘shawled … / in separation like a gypsy woman’, the harshness of nature is expressed in a more demotic terms: ‘bleak as buggery on windy nights.’
Having from the outset shown his ability to encapsulate a landscape or scene, Head proceeds, as his collection unfolds, to widen his historical scope and geographical range. ‘Iron in the Soul’, a sequence of six unrhymed sonnets, has an epigraph taken from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead: ‘ History could make a stone weep’. In its opening section we are presented with a landscape in summer and the fair weather walkers who treat it with scant regard: ‘At the top, they leave the litter from their picnics / and piles of dog crap inside plastic bags,’ Soon, however, we find ourselves in a less familiar world where a warrior is ‘testing the new grip / on his battle axe’, a place where ‘thick, white fog’ does not merely make high ground uninviting for hikers but gives cover to raiders. The sixth and final section is an eloquent peroration on death and transience behind which one senses, perhaps, the ghost of Ecclesiastes.
What we sweated to make
of oak, with iron and stone to bind it fast
against the years, lasted not much longer
than a leaf will feed a moth.
‘Staying Power’ the collection’s second major sequence, consisting this time of ten sonnets, is set in Singapore’s Chinatown. Here the poet’s eye roves like the lens of a photojournalist’s camera. As elsewhere in the collection there is again a realization that the present is always informed by what lies behind it, that ‘memories don’t vanish like graffiti / under coats of paint. In ‘2: Shadow Play’ Head evokes a past that seems colourful, almost lurid: ‘opium fortunes / lost in fires, the gold, the gambling dens, young girls shipped over in boatloads / to work the brothels.’ However, in ‘3: Chinese Whispers’ we are enjoined not to romanticise the past: ‘Don’t let all that tourist bullshit fool you, / there are still hungry ghosts in every house.’
In this collection there are so many fine poems that in the space available one can only finish by mentioning a few more personal favourites: ‘Canal: 2011’ with its ‘silty ghosts / of the men who died digging it’; ‘Inside the Frame’ a marvellously sustained meditation on an interior by Benito Barrueta’; or the skilful reportage of ‘Compliance’ and ‘On The Road from Nam Dinh’, his poem in memory of Robert Capa. Prospero’s Bowl is a richly textured and deeply satisfying collection. Like the artefact for which it is named, it is finely crafted, inspired, and has deep roots in history and the natural world.
Ken Head’s Prospero’s Bowl is published by Oversteps Books. 2013. ISBN: 9781906856410. £8 Buy your copy hereRead More
The strands of David Morley’s thought in this collection are rich and various. On the one hand, he makes use of his own part-Romani background, together with his knowledge of the Romani dialect in which he sometimes writes. On the other, the poems in the book’s first and third sections work to develop an insight into the real-life friendship between John Clare, the poet, and Wisdom Smith, the gypsy, material for which Morley draws from Clare’s journals and emphasises in the title of the opening sonnet, “Wisdom Smith Pitches his Bender on Emmonsales Heath, 1819″. The central section of the book, by contrast, is concerned to demonstrate the validity of Clare’s own belief in the creative forms of nature itself: “I found the poems in the fields/ And only wrote them down.” There is concrete poetry here and experiments in what George Szirtes has described as “the dynamics of birdsong”. These elements constitute a complex mix, the source material for which, it’s probably fair to say, is not well known, a particular difficulty, I felt, with the epigraphs taken from traditional Traveller songs and The Book of Wisdom of the Egyptians, for which no translation is offered because, as the notes make clear, “meaning may be found within the poems.” True enough. Both in content and form, the poems work hard to be accessible, but even given the problems of translation, I should have preferred to make my own judgement as to the relationship between each epigraph and the content of the poem related to it.
The collection, sixty-four poems in all, is bookended with two italicised sonnets which seem to me to define the basis of the entire project. In the first, “The Invisible Gift”, Morley describes the way in which, he believes, Clare went about making poems: “John Clare weaves English words into a nest/ and in the cup he stipples rhyme, like mud/ to clutch the shape of something he can hold/ but not yet hear; and in the hollow of his hearing,/ he feathers a space with a down of verbs/ and nouns heads-up.” It is a joyous creative process, craftsmanlike and unpretentious, that is being described, although at the other end of the collection, “The Gypsy and the Poet” makes clear the agonies a compulsion to write may bring with it: “Shades shift around me, warming their hands at my hearth./ It has rained speech-marks down the windows’ pages,/ gathering a broken language in pools on their ledges/ before letting it slither into the hollows of the earth.” Morley may, perhaps, be speaking of his sense of his own predicament here, caught between cultures, struggling with the notion of belonging, although what he writes is clearly, he believes, also true for Clare. The point, well made throughout the Wisdom Smith sonnets, is especially clear in “An Olive-Green Coat”: “John Clare longs to look the part, the part a poet can play/ – no part labourer. He stares at a tailor’s display, his money/ gone, his hands numb with the vision of further toils.”
Clare’s struggles with poverty, lack of education, his sense of isolation, the misery and depression these forced him to live with and his eventual decline into mental illness, are well documented and commemorated poignantly in what may be, if not his best, then certainly his best known, most anthologized poem, “I am”: “I am – yet what I am, none cares or knows;/ My friends forsake me like a memory lost:/ I am the self-consumer of my woes -”. Morley’s poems, however, in bringing together the very different mindsets of poet and gypsy, both of them, in material terms, impoverished, both living close to wild nature, but in other ways so dissimilar, create a dynamic that also highlights the love of nature, the life and energy, which readers familiar with Clare’s work will know predominate throughout his writing. “Mad” makes the point well: “Wisdom Smith smiles into his steaming bowl: ‘March Hares/ grow spooked in their bouts, so tranced by their boxing,/ you can pluck them into a sack by the wands of their ears!’/ John Clare hungers. He hugs his bowl and starts writing/ on the surface of the stew with a spoon. ‘Let the hare cool/ on the night wind,’ urges the Gypsy. ‘Sip him but do not speak.’ ”
In what Wisdom Smith teaches, or tries to teach, Clare, there is Romani lore that has been passed down through generations: how to survive in a world that is always indifferent and may well be hostile, how to enjoy it nonetheless, how to learn who and what are trustworthy and who and what may not be. As Smith says in “A Walk”, ” ‘I know no more than a child, John,/ but I know what to know …’ “ There are many similar examples, moments when the practical gypsy spells out the lessons of life to the brooding, insecure poet: ” ‘I envy your free-roving,’ John Clare sighs to Wisdom Smith./ ‘To have the wide world as road and the sky and stars as your roof.’/ ‘That bread in your mouth, brother,’ butts in the Gypsy, ‘is ours/ because I bought it with my muscles and my calluses this morning./ Man, the day gads off to market with the dawn and everything/ sells itself under the sun: woods, trees, wildflowers and men.’ ”
This book, to which my one thousand words haven’t begun to do justice, is the most interesting new poetry I’ve read this year; it’s a delight, a testament to what is important, not only in English poetry, but in life also: ” ‘Poor John,’ whispers the Gypsy, ‘a quaking thistle would/ make you swoon.’ ‘Truth is, Wisdom, a thistle still could!’/ laughs the poet. And the friends snort and drink to the night./ Clare snores beneath his blanket. Wisdom rises from the earth./ Their fire is all there is to show. Orion stares down on the heath./ He searches for their world with a slow sword of light.”
Order your copy of The Gypsy and the Poet, published by Carcanet, hereRead More
The history of the aeroplane becomes the third character in Fred and Blossom’s story in this tender, largely biographical collection. From the outset Fred and Blossom were bound to collide even though they grew up in very different worlds. Blossom came from show business: ‘born backstage and cradled in a costume basket’ while Fred’s father owned a laundry business. Part of the work’s charm is its layout – the opening poem places details about the two side-by-side suggesting the inevitability of the two lives joining. Similarly the birth of the flying machine is mentioned on the same page emphasising the link between them. The useful notes at the back of the collection tells that the characters are real and this is indeed their biography. Such knowledge draws us closer to Fred and Blossom as their lives are revealed.
We are shown Fred and Blossom’s early years including Blossom’s misfortune of she losing an eye as a reaction to vaccination. The characters’ lives are not without sadness yet what stops the poems from being maudlin is a skilfully deployed optimistic tone through the collection, reflecting the philosophical attitude of the players to what fate throws at them.
Bartholomew-Biggs does well to twine the characters’ lives alongside the development of flight in the 20th Century. As Fred makes his career in the nascent aircraft industry what is revealed is a great deal of aviation history, which comes alive when linked to the lives of Fred and indeed Blossom. In Learning to Fly we are shown the thrill experienced by the woman as ‘today she is learning to fly’. This is all the more contrasted by her Second World War experience when she and many women like her were discouraged from flying or indeed, designing. A found poem based on an article on women and flight from a 1939 issue of The Aeroplane clearly reveals how galling this must have been for Blossom: ‘the menace is the woman who thinks she ought to be flying a high speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly.’
Blossom’s life is perhaps the most extraordinary, as she, notwithstanding her partial-sightedness, becomes a keen aviator herself. Moreover it is revealed that she became integral to the design of aircraft. Bartholomew- Biggs emphasises the ramshackle held-together-with-string details of the first planes and the danger involved in flying such planes. The history of the plane reaches its climax in the Second World War and the poems dealing with this are charmingly nostalgic, not least the poem Workers Playtime which skilfully uses the idioms of the announcer and the responses of the workers revealing a good ear for realistic dialogue.
When Blossom learns to fly with Fred as her instructor, the two fall in love. There are obstacles, as with all great love affairs, not least the fact that she is already married. But running parallel with their love affair is their love for flight and aeroplanes. After the war, Fred continues to work in aviation however the poem Fred takes a back seat is touching in its gentle sadness – a sense that Fred has been side-lined in the firm he works, whilst Blossom is consigned to the role of wife and mother. The narrative then reveals that the company goes bankrupt and the poem Disused aerodrome 1963 is a fine tribute to all the disused airfields now lying quietly around the country.
The final section of the collection deals with other aspects of aviation history outside the dominant narrative. Interesting as they are and indeed skilfully executed, I feel they are mopping-up poems that did not fit the driving narrative and as such seem a little superfluous.
Order your copy of Fred and Blossom by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs (Shoestring Press £9) Here
It is difficult to write about big subjects without recourse to the abstract, and so Wendy Pratt’s first full collection is especially impressive given that its overwhelming interest is death. Pratt eschews abstraction first by rejecting mere ideas or notions as germs for poems, and secondly by refusing to remove – to abstract – differing modes of experience from the whole. All is of a piece. The mind, for example – distinctly abstract – gives way to the skull, as in “the skulls of students” (‘After the Digging is Done’) being filled with books and lectures about the mesolithic lake people of Starr Car.
Had I been the editor of this book I may well have insisted on calling it ‘Bones’, for the bone is a recurring symbol that seems to unite these poems. There are cheek bones, vole skulls, thigh bones, horse bones, vertebrae, deer skulls, bones of trees, little bones, bones of this and bones of that, even a whalebone corset – suggesting linkage, permanence, connection, strength, timelessness. The past inhabits the present in Wendy Pratt’s world – it “smoulders” (‘A64’) as peat smoulders.
The poet populates the quotidian with the mythic, conflates the inside with the outside –there is no Cartesian distinction as between body and mind: they are one. Words too inhabit the same intensely physical world: they “tangle / in the strawberries and weeds” (‘First Words’). Pratt promotes a kind of modern pantheism, in which everything is connected. In ‘Jesus of Nazareth Walks on Water’ the god “walks / to the boat, rests a human hand upon the wood”; in ‘Horse Singing’ “a universe can exist / in the dull thump / of a hoof”.
Nor is it only the human that is given personhood: wine “scampered / up and down my veins” (‘Driving Dangerously’), there is an ode to a polythene bag – “we’ve shared / our half-truths, bag” (‘Bag’), the poet’s mother’s bicycle is “No longer plagued by the intense futility / of age” (‘Black Beauty’); the landscape has “vertebrae” (‘Over Saddleworth Moor’). It isn’t a one way process: people are given planthood. They “intertwine / like tree roots” (‘It is Only Lunch’), wrists link like vines (‘The First Mrs Rochester’), the poet herself becomes “driftwood” (‘Raven Hall’).
Wendy Pratt gives life to everything, even as death undoes everything, including the poet’s child. The most moving poems in this collection are in a section entitled ‘The Unused Room’, and I hesitate to write about them, except to say that sad as they are, Wendy Pratt has succeeded in giving meaning to a life hardly lived. And even in these poems the felt is more important than the thought. In ‘The Blessing’ the childless mother feels “despair / balling up like a piece of stale bread / in my throat”. The mundanity of the image is shocking, but what it achieves is immediate connection. The reader is forced into the scene. I think this is very good poetry.
Museum Pieces is full of ghosts and hauntings (and a witch, the poems about which I have reviewed elsewhere – see Nan Hardwicke <http://www.wynnwheldon.com/search/label/Wendy%20Pratt> ), and, as poetry is perhaps haunted to some degree by Ted Hughes, another poet for whom the sacred and the mundane inhabited the same space, for whom the imagination was a tool not a toy.
Much of contemporary poetry is mere reflection, gobbets of prose in effect. Wendy Pratt does something only proper poetry can do: to make associations and connections across acres of symbol and image and idea, to address the most common of all subjects, death, provoking not only thought but also feeling. Fiction lures us into another world, but Pratt’s poetry invites us to explore our own, not factually, in the way of prose, but by way of the imagination. She is, in this sense, a kind of Coleridgean romantic. These ‘museum pieces’ are anything but. Death may be Wendy Pratt’s great subject, but her poetry throbs with “the rhythm of blood”, turning lived experience into vivid art.
In order for this not to sound like the rantings of a Prattitioner, I would add that I think the collection might have done with a little editing, and I am not sure it needed to be divided into sections (there are seven in all). Two of these sections, namely ‘A Box of Teeth and Claws’ and ‘The Cabinet of Hearts’ might have been excised completely, not because their poems are inadequate but because they are not quite so thematically coherent. Having said that, there is one poem, about love and death, which elicited from this reader a gulping sob at its last phrase, and deserves anthologizing by whomsoever compiles the next book of love poems. It is called ‘Shoe Trap’, and it is loving, as all Wendy Pratt’s poems seem to be, in a very particular, robust and inimitable way.
Flint arrow heads spilled like lost teeth,
found again, drawn up through the black
peat. They surfaced so often against
the shear side of a spade or beneath
the soft sole of a Wellington boot,
that they became common: a currency
in the playground; pocketed
with leaf skeletons and vole skulls;
our own histories marked out
along the chipped edges. And later,
at the official dig, deer skull hunting-masks
rose from the forgotten lake bed.
Glimpsed through the billow
of a white plastic tent they eyed us
with unwitting curiosity, watching
the new world; their faceless mouths
In the dark I grope across the bedroom
floor, feel for the shape of the wall, the door
and half trip, half step over your work shoes.
Shoe trap. Your favourite trick, four
shoes, haphazardly strewn,
your habit. My habit is the stumble, the meeting
of floor and face, the standard bruise
to the knee. Your shoe trap has held me captive
for thirteen years, swearing in the dark on my way
to the bathroom. Your habits and mine; a dance,
a meeting of selves over and over. The day
after my sister loses her husband to cancer,
I trip on your shoes in the dark, holding their scrubby,
battered shape, I’ve never felt so blessed or lucky.
Museum Pieces by Wendy Pratt is published by Prolebooks, 85pp, £6.50. Order your copy here.
Looking for Larkin is the first full length collection of Jules Smith’s poetry. Handsomely produced, it also contains a sequence of photographs by Dan Lyons which capture some of the monuments, wharves and streets of ‘Larkinland’ in and around Hull. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a poet who has been widely published since the early eighties, this is the first substantial gathering of his work. In ‘the Barefoot Bride’, which opens the collection and is placed alongside a shot of Pearson Park, Smith beautifully distils the influence of his master. Addressing a beloved with the Larkinesque endearment of ‘Darling’, he then describes a bride and wedding group in terms which are clearly intended to echo ‘The Whitsun Weddings’:
She trailed her ivory, wind-ravelled train
across the road to greet guests warmly,
colours sun-mingled as in a kaleidoscope .
Like the protagonists in many of Larkin’s poems, Smith is an outsider looking on, his ‘incline towards the curves of their talk / distanced by not knowing the family.’ Having described the stock figure of the best man sitting ‘on a low wall / like Humpty Dumpty, flirting with women’, he brings the poem to its conclusion with a quietly effective image which rings the changes on the fertility theme which is also important in Larkin’s poem: ‘Behind them all, the garden. Freshly dug.’
In ‘Looking for Larkin’, the collection’s title poem, Smith’s elusive eminence grise actually becomes his subject. Accompanied by an enigmatic photograph of Larkin’s flat in Pearson Park, this is another highly intertextual poem in which Mr Larkin is recreated in the image of his own ‘Mr Bleaney’, so that now the room which once belonged to ‘that novelist chappy’ has been ‘turned over to a well-balanced bloke / unafraid of ghosts, Pink Floyd posters on the walls.’ With a few deft strokes Smith gives us a convincing ‘warts and all’ portrait of the poet ‘almost capering’ to his classic jazz whilst at the same time he is ‘spying on “honeys”’. However, more than this, the piece is also a moving study on the subject of mortality in which the music changes with the decades and thirty years are reduced to ‘30 seconds on “News at Ten”’. Moreover, lest anyone think that Smith is merely an exponent of clever pastiche, he concludes with some bravura imagery that is entirely his own:
Coming and going across Pearson Park
some see orange and pink lamplights,
others luminous Larkinesque socks
against the evening’s darkening suit.’
Having established the Larkin theme, Smith proceeds to cast his net more widely. In ‘She’ he evokes his own adolescence by describing the erotic and ‘fulfilled figure’ of Ursula Andress rising from the waves in Dr. No. It is also the first of several poems inspired by the poet’s love of the cinema. Here, from the film version of King Solomon’s Mines, is the princess Ayesha disintegrating before our eyes:
Then the change in her. Stifled crying out,
corruption showing first on her spotted hands,
flesh jerking past the frames of desire
through such processes only film can fake.
Witty, intelligent, and full of fun, it must also be admitted that the allusiveness of this and many other poems here makes plenty of demands upon the reader. Alongside its cinematic references to Ian Fleming and Rider Haggard, there are echoes of Charles Aznavour, Larkin’s Mrs T, Ecclesiastes, Keats and no doubt others which the present reviewer has missed. Further highly entertaining excursions into the world of the silver screen are ‘Brief Encounter’, where ‘a veil of light separates art from life,’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Hitchcock’ which evokes ‘Female hip and automobile in Fifties curves, / cantilevers of bra and bridge.’
Central to Looking for Larkin is its virtuoso showcase ‘Poets’ Night on the S.S. Manxman’, a dazzling mock heroic epic in which Smith shows himself to be Hull’s answer to Dryden and Pope or, perhaps more appropriately, Clive James. There is no space here, and probably no need, to examine the rich literary heritage of ‘The Rumoured City’, other than to say that, from Larkin, Dunn, O’Brien and beyond, the list of poets seems endless, including figures such as Roger McGough and Tom Paulin who may not be immediately associated with the city, or Oliver Reynolds who started out with Faber in a blaze of glory but seems subsequently to have faded away. Over the years Smith himself has played a not insignificant role in this tradition and, via his long association with John Osborne’s journal Bête Noire, was well placed to observe the shenanigans and foibles of the city’s literati. Extending over twelve pages and featuring some dozens of poets, it would be invidious to focus on individuals in a poem which Smith refers to as ‘a long poem / on a long night, on a long boat. / A work of libel and celebration.’ There is, however, mayhem and bickering aplenty which is frequently fuelled by drink. Perhaps, as someone is alleged to have said about the Sixties: ‘If you can remember, you weren’t there.’ On a smaller scale, but just as hilarious and well observed is ‘Flannnerie’ in which the poet sharpens his scalpel on the Irish literary scene from Joyce and Flann O’Brien down to the more recent days of ‘Famous Seamus, the mud poet’ and ‘Fungus McMahon’.
A poem such as ‘Poets’ Night on the S.S. Manxman is bound to have a particular appeal for those who were a part of the ‘scene’ it depicts, so that those who were not may at first glance feel excluded. However, Smith’s brio and incisiveness, his skill with rhymes and rhythms and his frequently outrageous imagery are very appealing. Poets are, by and large, at least as fatuous and self-obsessed as everyone else and, whether the scene is the Roman Republic of Catullus or the coffee shops of Augustan London, it is always entertaining to see their vanities on display. The S.S. Manxman is a worthy reinvention of the ‘Ship of Fools.’ It would, however, be a mistake to see Smith as merely a gifted satirist and literary annalist. ‘On My Birthday’ is an endearingly nostalgic evocation of a Sixties childhood. Disappointed to discover that his postbox is empty, the poet is taken back to earlier days: ‘Back in bed I’m mindful of ten-bob notes, / riding the range of the back garden under a cowboy hat.’ ‘Shinglers F.C.’ returns to the same period and memorialises the doughty determination of its eponymous football team. In ‘Tomorrow’s People’ the old men ‘tending their allotments’ at the end of their lives are compared to ‘figures in a Breueghel landscape’ who are reduced to merely ‘doing something.’
Finally, if proof were needed that there is more to Smith than postmodernist high jinks and literary knockabout, one needs to look no further than ‘Graduation’, his austerely sustained meditation upon the death of his father:
The ceremony went well. Eulogies,
gowned ritual, a sense of having passed
onto that brief handshake with authority.
A liberation of sorts. Me to play.
Outside, the life of summer transcendent…
As in Beckett and some of the later poems of Larkin, Smith’s depiction of old age is relentless in its awfulness:
Being able to ‘take his drink’ left years
of enfeebled hopping on painkillers,
degeneration towards a chairbound,
legless, sightless, completely finished
dustbin character escaped from Beckett.
‘Cantankerous, humourless, feckless,’ the father is a figure who, having passed on, is ‘no longer / there to be feared,’ yet somehow, too, in spite of the tensions between the father and the son he dismisses sarcastically as ‘sugar plum’, big ‘ead’, ‘the professor’, the poet also recalls moments of togetherness when father and son shared late night ‘steak and kidney pies I wouldn’t eat now.’ Looking for Larkin is a varied and engrossing collection which is, by turns, funny, nostalgic and moving. It is beautifully illustrated by Dan Lyons and doesn’t have a dull page in it.
Looking for Larkin by Jules Smith is published by Flux Gallery Press and priced at £8.95. Order your copy here.Read More
It is a testament to Sue Millard’s exceptional skill as a poet that the poems in her collection “Ash Tree” have the tensile strength to contain the raw material of their contents.
In these nineteen graceful and crafted works she shares the experience of loving her grandchild, Naomi, through her short life and her death from cancer. It is a tribute to that love and its apparent powerlessness in the face of death that it gives the reader the ability to face and understand the emotional stages she and the child have passed through, but it is her handling of such potent themes as rage, hope, helplessness, loss of faith, fear, the sheer anguish of witnessing suffering and grief in such simple and accessible language and images that is astounding.
The ash tree of the title was and is a real tree felled to a stump in the garden in Sue Millard’s home in Cumbria – a garden in which Naomi and her Grandmother shared many moments together. These remembered times inform the poems right from the beginning.
In “Wild Strawberries” hope appears poignantly intact but already in the first three lines a deep unease is signalled,
“The strawberries are gone. Your nimble hands
seized them with glee when the shadowy side
was still green-white.”
It is the economy with which these lines convey all the desperate complexities of hope in the face of a cancer diagnosis that impresses.
Later, in “Many Waters” when,
“hope is too stale for me to drink now…” Sue Millard again conveys, with breathtaking economy the near impossibility to write about grief:
“Shut up the poems. I can only make
stars that splash into uncontrolled
wet angles, slashed across the white.”
The truth is however, that the formal dignity and control of Sue Millard’s craft are precisely what allows the reader to bear the unbearable with her.
“Missing”, with its unforced rhyme scheme and simple homely points of reference,
“I missed you by a quarter of an hour.
I should have hurried through my morning shower,
missed eating breakfast in the sleepy sun
or read no emails, or replied to none,”
The delicate trotting rhythm and repetitions animate the finest poem in this collection, “Pink”, in which we witness Naomi’s funeral procession,
“that pink box in a white hearse is
too small for you.
A sailing group of pink balloons
Learn flight with you.”
The child though missed is never missing in these poems. That the poet’s attention is so utterly focused ensures the validity of the poet’s commitment.
“I hold the brightness of you here,” she vows in “Putting away the toys” and this she most certainly does. Not since I read Douglas Dunn’s Whitbread award winning “Elegies” in 1985 have I been so moved. I cannot commend Ash Tree highly enough.
Silence the birds. Their notes drop
sweet as spring, but hope
is too stale for me to drink now.
Shut up the poems. I can only make
stars that splash into uncontrolled
wet angles, slashed across the white.
Dry up the rain. I can water
deserts with these tears, my face the shore,
each indrawn breath salt as the sea.
Hush the goodbyes. I shall watch
while your river flows to the falls,
and try to smile for you.
Ash Tree by Sue Millard is published by Prole and is priced at £5. Order your copy here.