The long and short of it – Thomas Ovans explores a pair of very different poetry anthologies.
The Book of Love & Loss,
edited by R.V. Bailey & June Hall
The Belgravia Press
384 pp £12.99
(50 p per copy goes to research into Parkinson’s disease)
A poetry anthology presents a reviewer with problems which do not arise with a single-author collection. With the latter, a reviewer can perform a mildly useful service by pointing out recurring themes and repeated imagery; but many anthologies will have one big recurring theme emblazoned on the cover which a reviewer will deserve little credit for spotting! A reviewer may care to comment on the range of moods and styles offered in a single-author collection; but it goes more or less without saying that an anthology will display a variety of poetic forms. One can quite fairly praise or criticize a single-author volume on the basis of a modest selection of quoted extracts; and few poets will feel hard done by if only around 10% of the poems are mentioned. But when dealing with an anthology with multiple authors it may seem invidious to name only a handful of the contributors. The anthology reviewer may also be forced into unfamiliar areas of judgement – evaluating the editorial choice, the layout of the book, even its overall concept.
The two anthologies featured here are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Sounds of the Front Bell is a small but diverse showcase for the work of just twelve poets who get two pages each. The Book of Love & Loss is a strongly-themed collection containing almost 400 poems by around 200 poets. It will thus be a challenge to deal fairly with each of them on their own terms.
It can quickly be said that Sounds of the Front Bell seems like quite a bargain. Attractively produced in pocket size and priced at only £4.99, it presents an introduction to a dozen poets, more than half of whom were new to me. The poets are in fact members of a workshop group and on the evidence of these poems it must be a very stimulating one to belong to. The book also contains a foreword by John Stammers which concisely sums up the characteristics of each contributor (a task that might normally be left for a reviewer). This is a book which can be easily and enjoyably read all in one go; and if this review appears early enough before Christmas I’d recommend Sounds of the Front Bell as an excellent stocking filler.
For obvious reasons of space, the poems are all quite short; but they are well-crafted and most are pretty immediately accessible. If I must single out a few which most appealed to me then I have to mention Beatrice Garland’s tense encounter in ‘Hotel’ where I’m shaking with excitement, fear and cold. / I could suggest we both go home, but // I don’t know if I’d mean it … In ‘The Dehumidifier’, Judy Brown finds a surprising amount to say to such a simple gadget – night and day inhuman lungfuls pass across / your plastic gills and yet, in the end, I click out the reservoir / and pour away the absent week’s wet harvest. Valerie Josephs’ poem ‘Recording My Thoughts While Travelling at Night’, although written after the 8th century Chinese poet Tu Fu, strikes a familiar note with the contemporary voyager: The departure boards are ruthless./ How could departure times be so wrong? I also enjoyed the cautionary lists assembled by Simon Rees-Roberts in ‘Ingredients’ . These begin mildly enough with Infrequent discriminatory language and behaviour but work their way up to the more alarming proportions of gravitational collapse,/ a singularity: the beginning, crushed in a tiny fist. Finally, it is particularly poignant to find poems by the late and greatly missed Susan Grindley, one of which likens Victoria Park to a Chinese landscape and ends
Next stop I’m getting off the bus.
By the time it pulls away
I shall have disappeared in my grey coat.
Look for my red shoes half way up the picture.
That final quotation brings me appropriately to The Book of Love & Loss which is obviously a much more weighty volume in every sense. I have to confess to wondering, at first, whether the title was well-chosen. And my doubts were increased when I saw the actual book with its plain blue hard covers which give it a rather Biblical look. This would not be an obvious gift for anyone unless you knew them very well indeed. Those who had not suffered a recent bereavement might not wish to be reminded at such great length of the emotions surrounding the experience; while those whose grief is still raw might not feel a need to have multiple voices attempting to verbalise their feelings.
How to approach the book was also a bit of a problem. I am not sure that I see it as one which lends itself to reading from cover to cover. Arranging the book in alphabetical order of author’s name has meant the risk of some inconsistencies of mood, style and point of view. In view of this, I wondered, briefly, whether the book might helpfully have been broken into themed sections – loss of spouse/partner; loss of child; loss associated with mental or physical disability and so on. But this would have imposed an extra layer of editorial tasks and one which might not, in the end, have been achievable.
I have voiced these possible reservations because I think they need to be faced. But, having done so, I also want to look past any misgivings and report that the book’s contents pages read like a volume of Who’s Who in present-day British poetry. The editors R V Bailey & June Hall have gathered a generous helping of excellent work and they must have sifted through an enormous amount of material to make a final selection for what can certainly be seen as a first-rate resource book. The back cover chooses to single out such eminences as Gillian Clarke, Philip Gross and the Laureates Carol Ann Duffy and Andrew Motion; but other only-slightly-less-stellar contributors include U A Fanthorpe, Rebecca Goss, Mimi Khalvati, Michael Rosen and many more. And some of the poems which surprised me most (when I thought I might be becoming a bit thick-skinned on the subject of loss) came from poets whose work I was unfamiliar with.
I may already have laboured the point that it is difficult to pick out ‘representative’ contents to illustrate the quality of the book. The best I can do is to offer the following few – but I hope coherent – observations with apologies to the many poets whose work goes unmentioned. Every reader of this densely packed book will surely come across a similar subset of poems which all make some particularly strong impression.
I found that, on the whole, I was less moved than I would have expected by poems describing inner feelings of the bereaved: they were often so intensely personal that I felt rather like an intruder. I could feel more empathy when poems focussed on a physical object as a trigger for recollection: a handkerchief, still folded, in a jacket pocket; a tin box of letters; a loaf of Mother’s Pride. In ‘Aeroplanes’, Rebecca Goss skilfully channels raw grief through controlled reactions to a package containing possessions belonging to a victim of an air-crash – over which a stench hovers. / Diesel fuel … with the hang of disinfectant behind it. The opening lines of Robert Peake’s ‘The Silence Teacher’ also externalise responses to bereavement in a surprising and haunting way: Seeing friends for the first time after his death / tested the silence a room could hold. The poem then goes on to fill the silence of mourning one child’s death with a story of another child recovering her hearing.
Some of the most powerful poems are those where the poet chooses to observe the experience of loss from just a little way away. Thus Tim Liardet’s astonishing 9/11 poem ‘The Dark Age’ writes in the third person about a man whose brother was there at the source of it … at the source of the cloud and whose extraordinary subsequent actions, knowingly or not, echo those of the prophet Ezekiel. Similarly shocking, but in a more homely setting, is Sophie Hannah’s poem about a schoolboy’s essay describing his summer holidays, entitled ‘Your Dad Did What?’ In Martin Crucefix’s ‘By the Mid-day Sun’, a first person narrator distances himself from an act of exhumation and re-burial by repeatedly introducing an imaginary observer – somebody might see us.
Gillian Clarke’s ‘On the Train’ moves a little aside from the main focus of the book and reminds us how we have grown used to being able to stay in almost constant touch with loved ones:
Tonight I’ll be home safe but talk to me, please.
Pick up the phone. Today I’m tolerant
of mobiles. Let them say it. I’ll say it too.
Darling, I’m on the train.
And maybe such ease of communication with those who are temporarily out of sight is making us even less prepared to deal with permanent bereavement when it happens. Wanda Barford brushes against a similar thought in her touching poem ‘Chattering’
I’d love to phone you
and tell you what’s been happening
over here – how I’ve cleaned
and tidied up your office
how I haven’t spent all your money;
. how your
five year old grandson often says
Papa’s dead isn’t he? as if trying
to make sense of dead
Which of course is something that few of us have yet managed to do.