Thomas Ovans & Michael Bartholomew-Biggs consider some recent collections
by Murray Bodo, Jenna Butler, Tim Cunningham, James Norcliffe,
Ian C Smith and Christopher Wiseman
While London Grip New Poetry has featured poets from many parts of the world, the magazine’s modest reviewing resources have, until recently, been reserved for books published in the UK. However a small precedent may have been set with the review of Todd Swift’s When All My Disappointments Came At Once, which comes from the Canadian publisher Tightrope – see http://londongrip.co.uk/2012/10/poetry-review-autumn-2012-swift/. Hence we now present a group of short reviews of several other collections which are published overseas. Thanks to the internet, these should be available to British readers (even those who normally prefer to buy from booksellers in real shops, while such things can still be found). But since London Grip is not only aimed at British readers we are also happy to be playing a part in promoting good poetry in its country of origin.
The poets and collections reviewed below come from Ireland, North America and the Antipodes and they have been selected somewhat serendipitously, on the basis of chance encounters at poetry events or of work submitted to London Grip during the past twelve months or so.
Siege by Tim Cunningham
Revival Press, Limerick, Ireland
61 pp ISBN 978-0-9569092-3-7
Tim Cunningham is an Irish poet who has been based in England for many years; but his latest “selected and new” collection Siege comes from the Limerick- based Revival press. Many of the poems deal with his own growing up in Limerick; but he also writes about the city and county’s earlier history. Some of this is rather forbidding: he touches on cannibalism at sea (“Eating Tim O’Brien”); and in “Dirty linen” he conveys bluntly the judgemental attitudes behind the harsh conditions in the ‘Magdalene laundries’ for ‘fallen women’. Cunningham brings a touch of compassion to such subject-matter, as if seeking to make amends for a past that was short on pity. He defuses brutality by using the siege of Limerick as a metaphor for a persistent suitor’s wooing – I searched for the breach where love could penetrate and he tells how a woman of the streets held a bottle for comfort / like a child would clutch her doll. Cunningham has a knack for apt and surprising images: clocks on workshop shelves are perched like owls; a lover’s heart is like a roasted apple; and in the night sky above a red-light district the single star was strip-teasing / behind a rag of cloud.
Some of the most impressive poems in the collection are about Cunningham’s father, who was killed during the second world war. One of his last letters to his wife was written in pencil and
knowing the pencil’s lead would sink
in the page’s white rapids
he asks her to re-write his words in pen.
Her act of tracing faithfully / the loop and line of letters movingly captures the effort of keeping memory alive. In “Toy Soldiers”, Cunningham tells of his own childhood efforts to lift his mother’s spirits with an army of words, giving them orders to smile … go over the top … and do the job on loneliness.
Some readers may find that Cunningham’s poetry draws a little too much on religious symbols from his childhood (and on its accompanying sectarian attitudes – people said she was a protestant / as if she had measles). But this should not discourage those who are less familiar with churches and church furniture. Cunningham does not seem to be dogmatic about matters of faith – and so when, in the silence of an empty church, he feels himself to be “on hold” he muses Perhaps He’ll call me back. He has my number.
Something Like Jasmine by Murray Bodo
Tau-Publishing, Phoenix, Arizona
85 pp ISBN 978-1-61956-023-9
Religion is also strongly present in the poetry of Murray Bodo, a Franciscan priest from Cincinnati. He is the author of many books and his latest poetry collection is Something like Jasmine, from Tau Publications. Bodo’s Christian faith shows itself throughout this fine book. Sometimes it is explicit and visionary, as when a high-flying jet glinting in the sun suggests the arms outstretched that mark Good Friday; and sometimes it appears simply in a compassionate awareness of human fallibility – including his own.
Many of the poems are elegies for departed friends or reflections on death itself. This does give the book are rather monochrome feel; but the individual poems are not gloomy or depressing because Bodo faces up to loss and sadness and the mystery of dying with both honesty and lively insight. He notes that death has different ways of sneaking up on us: it can be as quick and clean as when invisible scissors / cut the stark shadows or as slow and untidy as blown roses … quietly/ becoming asymmetrical. And in case we ever feel we have the apt metaphor, he reminds us that death always eludes because it is something seen but still disbelieved as long as we remain alive.
Bodo is equally honest and clear about other themes he touches, when he is not writing about mortality. His poems do not strive for self-importance and they are not afraid of being as weightless as blurred feathers beyond windows. But they do not fall back on vagueness as an easy option; they can be analytical enough to recognize that flowers are full of ordered, beautiful numbers around a centre we feared was an imagined zero. Bodo is not ashamed to speak in the voice of a child who once shot songbirds by mistake or of the adult who now welcomes animals as companions. And he is frank enough to engage not only with virtues and good manners but also with smells and eccentricities of saints and sinners. A mediaeval convent dormitory is rank with bodies tossing and tired / trying to fit God’s dreamed contours. A street singer in twenty-first century America
quoting accurately the Word
of God who provides for those who
ask for blessing and sing His praise
takes the money offered him and then adopts a more down-to-earth attitude: “They get,” he added, “fried chicken too.” Bodo seems to take delight in dignifying such down-to-earth encounters in his poetry.
Wells by Jenna Butler
University of Alberta Press, Edmonton, Alberta
67 pp ISBN 978-1-897126-60-8
Jenna Butler is a poet who lives in Alberta, Canada. She was however born in Norwich and she explores her Norfolk roots in her new book Wells from University of Alberta Press which contains atmospheric and beautiful prose-poems about her English grandmother. Those who have been to the area around Wells-next-the-Sea will appreciate how well Butler evokes East Anglia with its coastal lands, where the North sea speaks carefully around a mouthful of flints, and its wide skies over the saltmarshes with birds riding the wind – a linnet in aerobatic flight, its song pealing like rain. But even for those who do not know the locality, Butler’s poems will surely conjure them as clearly as she portrays the terrifying swarm of hornets in barley fields that few of us could ever have imagined: Nothing saved you from those lividly buzzing fields, not wellingtons to the knee, not the mad frenzied dash affected at each humming cataclysm.
The poems in Wells are not just about landscape; they seek, very effectively and affectingly, to restore lost memories of someone slipping into dementia, someone of whom it is true that this body [is] going on without you. Butler addresses her grandmother throughout as ‘you’ as she imagines herself offering gentle reminders of old family stories and giving back a past that has melted away. As she retrieves the tales of the aunt in Battersea who never came out of the war and the father who came back from the war overwritten with translucent patches she also catches vivid aspects of rural domestic life. And she captures these scenes for us too: for instance a room settling instantaneously into factions during a family funeral. She helps us, too, to empathise with a young bride feeling cut off when she shifted one parish over … might as well have been miles once she took his name…. If you were lucky .. you could put flowers on the family graves one Sunday a month.
Early in the book Butler draws on some of her own last recollections of her grandmother, still living on her own at home. By this time she had begun leaving notes lying around to jog her own memory with hints such as Greenfinches prefer peanuts or Bleach only with whites. Recalling these little aides-memoires, Butler also makes a memorandum to herself that I will gather them together and reassemble you. She has now fulfilled that promise and made a splendid job of it.
36 Cornelian Avenue by Christopher Wiseman
Véhicule Press Signal Editions
80 pp ISBN: 978-1-55065238-3
Christopher Wiseman is also an English-born Albertan poet and his tenth collection, 36 Cornelian Avenue, deals with childhood memories of wartime Scarborough. While some will find this very specific theme immediately engaging, others may feel little initial enthusiasm. The book, however, assumes no prior knowledge of the period and presents plenty of background facts. It does so entirely without rosy hindsight views of wartime –e.g. plain diet + community spirit = robust health. “Collateral damage”, for instance, lists many hardships and indignities suffered by ordinary families. Furthermore this poem’s throwaway ending
No need for gas masks then, but there were other war wounds
and our teachers hit us
leads us to the harsh school discipline described in “Lessons of War”. Wiseman directs as much anger towards some teachers as he does to the German pilot who strafed his street and is now perhaps a mess of bone and leather … under the North Sea.
It is first-hand stories that inspire the best of Wiseman’s poetic invention and craft. In “Mines” he recalls the temptation to climb on huge chestnuts with spikes. But each spike was a lethal horn and so boys threw stones at them instead. Thus danger and madness were taken for granted and turned into play: We were wartime cowboys and all our guns were loaded.
There are many other fine poems of first-hand witness. Well-observed local characters include the disabled newspaper man, the optimistic milkman and the motorcyclist – he rode a red BSA, the bad one – bringing bad news telegrams. Elsewhere we are challenged by our own inexperience of blackout hazards: Have you smashed your face into a telephone pole? We did. The whole collection is haunted by the absence of fathers.
Happily, some poems are less sombre: a gentle account of two six-year-olds exploring boy-girl differences; and a wonderfully breathless almost-all-in-one-sentence report of goings-on in Daphne Walker’s attic. There is even an unlikely moment of passion during an air raid.
Alongside so many strong personal pieces, the poems dealing with wider issues – statistics of V-bomb raids, reiterations of popular songs – do not have quite the same energy and flair. But overall, the book is powerful – especially in its portrayal of the author’s parents. His father’s story (which remains unclear for much of the book, echoing the awful uncertainties of war) emerges in a poem about a casino which stands where he instructed rows of flyers for whom, in due course, either .. their number came up or it didn’t. Wiseman’s mother has a magnificent moment at a railway station full of confused and frightened evacuees:
… my suddenly bigger mother marched
the whole length to the engine and asked the driver
where he was going to.
Her eyes made him speak it when he shouldn’t
This is one especially poignant moment in a memoir that has taken most of a lifetime to mature.
Here Where I Work by Ian C Smith
Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide.
62 pp ISBN 978 1 74027 766 2
Coincidentally, Wells-next-the-Sea also appears in Here Where I Work, the latest collection by the Australian poet Ian C Smith. Wells, along with several other British locations, gets a mention in a group of travel-related poems appearing early in the book. In these, as in most of the other poems, Smith uses rather precisely detailed scene-setting; indeed he establishes this distinctively specific and confiding tone in the very first poem which offers the reader coffee brewed in my two-cup pot.
Smith’s anecdotal poetry often deals with the commonplace – but this is mostly enlivened by his freshness of observation. He notes, for instance, the dragon’s breath preceding the train on the London Underground and offers this memorable summing-up of a seaside town
The ozone is alive with corruption.
Councillors’ horizons are not straight,
signs of change are dollar signs.
In some places, unfortunately, Smith’s search for clarity through careful explanation can sometimes lead him into being a little prosey: I watch a televised play./ A middle-class boy after the war / holidays at the coast with his family; or again In the years following that career debut / during those light-comedic romps / did you think about beginners’ luck …?
Many of the poems involve reflections on mortality and aging, as when describing angst about clock hands circling like vultures or frustration when memory, infuriating tease, / suddenly pulls down her black blinds. These poems are certainly effective but they are also rather introspective. Even when there is human interaction it is often portrayed rather bleakly:
She would thank him after sex,
disconcerting him considering
her impression of an effigy
immediately preceding this gratitude.
Happily, there are also instances of empathy and compassion such as a sensitive identification with a child’s view of a terrible accident and a study of a couple drifting apart who might as well rage at the Earth/ for continuing its careless spinning/ spinning a grey web around them, separately. “The Heart’s Shifting Fortunes” finds a particularly surprising way of evoking intimacy.
Overall, this collection is well put together and the poems sit comfortably with one another. Smith uses rhyme and form skilfully and the book includes some well-crafted sonnets. Even his less formal pieces feel disciplined and controlled. “In Praise of Free Verse” enquires Why do old poets persevere with rhyme? Have they never read nor heard of free verse? and then observes Sliced bread’s popular, so too, chopped up prose. His own experiments are mild but effective: a poem in which each line starts with ‘when’; “Prepositions” where every line ends with one.
Shadow Play by James Norcliffe
Proverse Publishing, Hong Kong
92 pp ISBN 978-988-19935-8-8
Shadow Play (a finalist in the2011 Proverse International Writing Competition) is the seventh collection by New Zealand poet James Norcliffe. This is perhaps the most playful of the books reviewed here. This is not to say that Norcliffe avoids serious subjects; but he enjoys himself with language while he tackles them. Sometimes he indulges in word-games:
that’s the sort of cat’s-paw’s cat’s piss
he would drink before he paws and
paddles at her roiling royal flesh.
Elsewhere – as in his prose poems – he conjures elegantly balanced sentences: The bus shelter across the way had seen better days; the railway station would see no more. The first no longer hoped for a bus; the second had abandoned hopes of a train.
Within neatly shaped and controlled stanzas, Norcliffe’s imagination and verbal ingenuity run freely, entering the consciousness of characters ranging from scaffolders to empresses and from a truck driver to Prince Hamlet. The poems move easily between the fantastic and the factual (including information about botany, biology and cooking). They can be simultaneously whimsical and serious enough to arouse sympathy, as when imagining someone so lonely he pushed / his card into the ATM / not for the cash but / for the conversation.
Some poems venture into dark areas other than loneliness. Norcliffe bluntly admits that, when watching trapeze artistes,
the thrill is in the possibility
not that she will
but that she won’t make it
Elsewhere, however, the darkness is more mysterious: the title poem seems to be a frightened soldier’s battlefield recollection of seeing “Peter and the Wolf” as a child; and “Endgame” describes a malodorously evil old woman who remains a stain to be dealt with. The (otherwise useful) notes offer no help with these; and about the sinister-sounding “my alien vegetable” they only say it is a riddle poem, without providing a solution (although one is offered in London Grip New Poetry for Autumn 2012). One of the pleasures of following Norcliffe into unfamiliar and uncomfortable places is in looking forward to the next delightful or startling image such as an Empress who is aware … my eunuchs / they hate me / they stand waist-deep in hate; an ichthyosaurus which has not one centimetre / of human history in the / kilometres of its eyes; and Errol Flynn‘s pencil moustache which had not been sharpened.
The book’s closing section, “The Colour of Tenderness” , complements the edgy and unsettling tone of the earlier parts and picks up gentler themes like teaching children the difficult meaning / of togetherness. The poems in this final part move intriguingly through hope and reconciliation – a brave grey rabbit staring / at us, one eye bright with forgiveness – to inventive declarations of love as we eavesdrop on “a bookman” and hear him whisper words that fall like water with/ the elegance of Garamond tracing. Paying closer attention to tenderness is an effective way for Norcliffe to round out this rich and varied collection.