Sam Kemp

 

Time had not come

…to Oscar Buckland’s birthday
but remained on the windowsill
of last winter, like a stone
skimmed halfway across a frozen lake.

…to the hay curled in grains
and fidgeting with dreams
of tall lineages, great uncles standing
in ranks of country militia.

…to the door left open for midnight
which disperses like perfume
in a memory
waiting to be seated.

…to the ice on the front steps
pinning down balls of air
and stalking Oscar’s ankles,
like a reluctant house cat.

…to a mother’s groans
as she splits soft oak
in the woods behind Oscar’s house,
pausing to breastfeed a baby.

…to the father
that writes from battle
stained France at the end
of the lane, miles from the front.

…to the knees of grandparents
the original mountains
miles from the stone floor
and shrouded in knitwear.

…to the new year’s snow on the barn
he burnt down with a kick
of an oil lamp. Sunset in the East
caught in streetlights overhead.

…to the white belly of a wedding
night and the slow descent of clothes
that slip down the moonlight
and crumple by Oscar’s feet.

…to the wife that carries tea
and calls his name
over the moorland, opening
with every step and shiver of his gown.

 

Sam Kemp  a graduate of the University of Gloucestershire’s Creative and Critical Writing MA programme, where he focused on trickster elements in Don Paterson’s Rain. His previous publications include Dreamweaver, Envoi and Angle.

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Graham Burchell reviews ‘The Lightbox’, by Rosie Jackson,

 

 

‘Because of Him, Hummingbirds Will Die’

In a collection called ‘The Lightbox’ one might not be surprised that thirty five of the sixty nine poems within contain the word ‘light’, but the same number of poems also contain ‘love’, and there’s quite a bit of kissing going on as well. There’s also wonderfully rendered ekphrasis, with particular emphasis on the work of British artist Stanley Spencer to begin each of the six sections, and the collection ends on a high note with an angle on one of Spencer’s Resurrection paintings with ‘bodies that cannot have enough of each other,/ this love that is always being made.’ Be stabbed in the heart or lifted to great heights, and throw into the mix a whole stream of other characters: artists (Daguerre, Grainger McCoy, Masaccio, Barbara Hepworth, Georges de la Tour, Picasso, Joseph Wright) historical (Mary Shelley, Lazarus, Leonard Woolf, Flaubert, John Donne, Margery Kempe, Mrs Thatcher) and mythical (Penelope, Persephone, Demeter, Orpheus and Eurydice), then add heaped spoonfuls of imaginative sensual play, a little death, pain, tenderness, the trials of relationships, and Rosie Jackson brings together the ingredients for a quite remarkable collection.

 

The landscapes in which she sets her characters in order to consider aspects of their lives, or life itself, are beautifully realised. Where these characters are artists, she sometimes employs their work to explore more personal issues. ‘In Which I Liken Our Ending to Masaccio’s Expulsion’, for example, the restored painting of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden has the fig leaves removed. They’d been painted on three centuries after Masaccio for the sake of decency. The resulting poem offers more about her relationship, as the title suggests, than the inviting opening line that speaks directly of Eve as she is once again portrayed without the cover-up leaves.

 

Similarly, in the poem ‘My Uncle Visits Mount Vesuvius, 1944’, we are delivered into a painting. Joseph Wright undertook a series of thirty or more of Mount Vesuvius in eruption, and the poem draws from both the image of humbling forces of nature in the artwork, and the family grief of an uncle killed thereabouts, presumably in the war. ‘I don’t know who carried his body -/ there were no fathers or brothers left.’ And what a powerful ending to a poem like this. Speaking of her mother (mum), ‘She kept his spectacles on the sideboard for years.’

 

Some images are dealt with more directly, but they speak to the emotions powerfully. She writes of Daguerre, who in 1839 claimed, ‘I’ve seized the light’ in reference perhaps to his Daguerrotype photograph ‘Boulevard du Temple’ which includes the earliest known candid photograph of a person. The poem makes the hairs on the neck spring to attention with lines such as ‘a bootblack, head bowed,/ the first ghost to be caught on camera,/ condemned to be in service forever.’

 

Then there’s Picasso, or rather Picasso’s reflection in the window of the Café de Flore. There’s something quite haunting, but at the same time mesmerising about the notion of him seeing his own reflection remain standing in the café window when he sits down. He ‘tries not to glance round/ and see the self in the glass/ hanging there/ like a detached retina.’

Other characters are placed in unlikely settings or considered in suprising ways: Mrs Thatcher leaves her body and meets St Francis, Demeter takes up embroidery and Persephone blames the dress, but these are effective routes to exploring and keenly observing. We see Mrs Thatcher, her mind uncoupled, rising up from her sceptered isle, becoming unsettled, ‘till the light feels more like darkness,/ coal dust,’. So much depends (not on a red wheelbarrow), but­ on the richness and the weaving of Rosie Jackson’s own myths and inventions.

 

And returning to love and light and pain, they are ever present to a greater or lesser degree, whether those words can be found in the poems or not. Sometimes they are like a sharp injection into the senses. The eye for small detail lifts these poems from those we have heard before: ‘stepping round petrol puddles’ in a wedding dress that she can’t remember, ‘when you climbed into bed with wet hair’ in ‘Had We Known’ and in ‘Seated Nude’ (another of Stanley Spencer’s paintings), we hear his ex-wife, Hilda’s ‘anger squashed like pressed flowers.’

 

Stanley Spencer said he wanted to put himself in his work, and as an obvious enthusiast for this twentieth century artist’s life and paintings, Rosie Jackson likewise puts herself into her poems. They are deft, have a strong voice, and if reading extraordinarily good poems full of light, love and quite a bit of kissing, appeals, then ‘The Light Box’ comes highly recommended.

 

 

The Lightbox  by Rosie Jackson is published by Cultured Llama, and is available here: http://www.culturedllama.co.uk/books/the-light-box

 

 

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Wynn Wheldon reviews The Devil’s Tattoo by Brett Evans

 

 

 

It is hard to escape the feeling that Brett Evans – or, at least, the poet Brett Evans, if you will accept the delicate distinction – was born in the wrong place at the wrong time, or perhaps in the right place at the right time with the wrong constitution.  He is, properly speaking, a blues singer, part Delta, part Chicago, who has found himself instead a “fat, pink alkie” in a small town in North Wales at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  As he says in the same poem (‘Reading Sean O’Brien in the Bath’), “something is amiss”.

 

This short collection is very much of a piece, the themes pulled “over troublesome stones” through it, like the Gele river itself: myth, Wales, pubs and drink, jazz, religion, poetry, and desire.  And perhaps the displacement is perhaps not so great, perhaps he’s a Celt from across the sea, and should have been a Dubliner.  His tipple after all is stout (even in his erotic fantasies he lathers his lover’s hair “to a Guinness foam”).  One way or another these poems are written from the Celtic twilight.

 

The melancholic confessional is a hard thing to pull off without self-pity, but there’s none of that here.  The collection’s first poem, ‘Marshes’ starts in childhood – “we swashbuckled summers across the weir” – and powerful fantasy, and ends in two connected sadnesses which can never be erased: the defeat of Wales and the realisation that “we’re who we are” – an end to childhood.

 

Dreams and fantasy fuel much of Evans’s poetry, the paradox being that they earth him in the single place he writes from.  He dreams of being in bed with the great blues “moaner” Ma Rainey; he rides “on the trail of the buffalo” with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot; he is an extra in a Spaghetti western “with an unforgettable score”. He dreams simply “of a song”.

 

Do you notice? Music is a constant – the devil’s tattoo. Most of the drunks are singing (usually “A lament for, and from, the anonymous”), Ma Rainey is singing Jelly Bean Blues, Coltrane’s sax is here beautifully kissing the breeze, Armstong’s doing over ‘Stardust’, even a scarecrow sways like “a metronome to an orchestra / of gale and sleet”.

 

Like the dreams of music, the myths of Wales, the “ugly, lovely children’s world”, desire too keeps the poet busy.  The barmaids “come and go” (probably not talking of Michelangelo), and he dreams of pampering them all. Or, peering from a pub window in the touching ‘Not Raglan Road’, he watches a woman in suede boots: “There is only her moving through this world”.  The poet imagines “a handful / of raindrops may just find their resting place / in her hair”.  This image, almost clumsily described – “may just” is perfectly awkward – is delicately erotic. As is also the “fantasized unclothing” of the sycamore stem in ‘Carving a Lovespoon’. ‘Positions in Bed’ contains not only “an imagined lover” but also “dream pubs”.

 

My favourite poem, and one I think would do well in schools (that sounds faintly praising but is not at all meant to), stands a little apart from the rest of the collection.  It is not confessional, and yet, insofar as Evans does come close to self-pity it may be the most confessional of them all.  It is called ‘Scarecrow’.  There is explicit analogy with the crucified Christ – “arms outstretched, forsaken, / he wears his unkempt crown”, and later “This son of Man // is blind to purpose, rooted in solitude” – but here there is no redemption.  The suggestion is of a godless world, and God does pop up more frequently in these poems than one at first notices.  How could he not, given the presence of the blues, of Guinness, of Wales?  But he’s here in passing, in ghostly form. The devil is much more real.  There is, in ‘Anticipating Pints of Stout’ a marvellous description of the drink lined up on a bar: “a lechery / of pint-sized priests to knock back without repentance”.  Drink, not religion, brings salvation.

 

The collection ends as it began, in childhood, or rather in the memory of childhood, and reflections on the present:

I haunt our stomping grounds, my shadow striding
out before me: a giant ghost, coat flapping in the wind.
And the water before the weir forever lapping at the child.

Do we have a word for nostalgia without the fleck of sentimentality that makes nostalgia kitsch? The Welsh word hiraeth is often translated as homesickness, but it may also denote a longing for the past.  Might it do to describe the spirit of these lines?  I don’t know.  I am not a Welsh-speaker, but maybe.

 

The devil’s tattoo drums through all our lives, and the poet’s desire that “the familiar must become the unfamiliar” – which I take to be one of the things poetry does –  is what defies that beat and makes the real tolerable.  Sean O’Brien and Dylan Thomas are both presences here, both poets capable of seeing wonder in the quotidian.  It is an ability, a tendency, that Brett Evans aspires to, and often achieves, in this short, punchy, thoroughly engaging and coherent pamphlet.

 

 

Brett Evans’ The Devil’s Tattoo (Indigo Dreams) is the runner up for Best Poetry Pamphlet in this year’s Saboteur Awards. Buy your copy here.

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