Saturday 30 November 2019
Famously, in Dante’s Inferno, the poet follows Virgil down through the circles of hell, meeting the famous dead en route. In Cathy Galvin’s new and compelling pamphlet, Walking the Coventry Ring Road with Lady Godiva, the narrator follows Godiva (‘Godgifu’) round the circles of Coventry ring road, ‘following a road, a river, a prayer.’
This is not really an inferno – the narrator remarks at one point ‘there are no circles of hell, just this road’ – but rather a kind of limbo, a ‘circling sandstone,’ which, at least in these poems, delineates a circular history, as much as it does a city’s geography. Like W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Galvin’s beautiful pamphlet is a walk through a circular, eternally-recurring history of destruction – from the city’s bombing in the Second World War, to the ruinous rebuilding of the city in the 1950s and 60s, to the poverty and job losses of the 80s, captured by the Specials in their well-known song about Coventry, ‘Ghost Town,’ and ultimately to post-industrial decay:
Just watch me walk beside the demolition
of buildings that once rose to post-war visions,
the planners pleased the bombs sanctioned their plans …
[then] more bombs. More cries of Liberty. Unions,
monasteries, militants, all have their day;
Carmelites and car factories the same.
For the poet, these wider histories of destruction and rebuilding are intertwined with her own personal history: she notes that ‘the ring road … was built the year I was born,’ and her parents, who came to Coventry to work in the car factories, are buried in a cemetery close by one of the ring road’s flyovers. ‘Words wait in my flow to return,’ declares the poet, and the poems themselves are a kind of ring road, marking a circular return to home and the poet’s past. Ring road is history, geography, poem – and even human body: just as the ring road seems to contain the city’s past, so ‘the dead walk within our hearts’: ‘I stroll my body back to what holds within / its light, its stone, its bare bones.’
This is a past that does not vanish, but persists like light, held in the body, in stone, in the road, in Galvin’s haunted poetry; the dead may be dead, but they also ‘walk within our hearts.’ This a cyclical history that is not just a matter of circles of hell or destruction, but one which also involves persistence, renewal, possibility. The River Sherbourne becomes a potent symbol of this more optimistic element: routed under the ring road, it eventually returns to the surface to join the Sowe and Avon. ‘Culverted under ring road,’ Galvin writes, ‘the river sinks beneath the streets / holds its breath,’ but ‘Sherbourne will not die’:
The light will come –
this stream re-emerge; tunnels crack,
supporting towers collapse …
– all must repeat – in rubble, nettle, willow, fern.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012) and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
Friday 29 November 2019
As with her previous poetry collection, Lydia Towsey’s second book, The English Disease, is full of poems which are musical, lyrical, performative, but which also jump off the page into the ears and mouth of the reader: poems, that is, which work equally out loud or ‘in-loud’ – heard via silently-moving lips in the mind’s-ear of the reader.
In these poems, the reader hears of modern England’s diseases and their symptoms – as well as possible cures, some which help, some of which make them worse: ‘There must be a shot. / There must be a cure // for the English disease, the English disease.’ Towsey asks diseased England to ‘write back’ to her, so she, like a poet-doctor, can diagnose what is wrong – and what might be right, too. Among the militant nationalists, the ‘men in monocles abusing privilege,’ the ‘treatments / elections and referendums,’ the war-mongering, the failed primeministers, the arms sales, the xenophobia, she traces a counter-narrative, a counter-culture, a half-obscured English tradition of resistance, hospitality, rebellion, subversive humour, courtesy, a ‘decency of queues.’ This is a crypto-Socialist England, not unlike that imagined by George Orwell in his great essay The Lion and the Unicorn, which needs to ‘remember the speeches’:
We shall welcome them on the beaches.
We shall welcome them on landing grounds.
We shall welcome them in the felds and in the streets.
We shall welcome in the hills.
I remember Monty Python,
I remember Bowie,
I remember Boudicca,
I remember Bevan.
Politics, though, is not all speeches and heroes, not all Boudiccas and Bevans and Guy Fawkeses. It does not only happen on a national scale. It is also a uniquely personal force, as universal as gravity, which operates between people in queues, friends sharing cups of tea. And Towsey’s poetry beautifully captures moments of connection between the political and the personal, the macrocosmic and microcosmic. It stands with Jung, when he declares that ‘the psychology of the individual is reflected in the psychology of the nation.’ In Towsey’s poetry, family history, parenthood, eating disorders, tea drinking, queuing, politeness and its opposite all reflect the psychology of contemporary England – a psychology which intermingles all these things with a traumatic history ‘built on broken bones / returning boats to burning homes.’
Still, if this national history is reflected in individual actions and, indeed, individual poems, it can also be distorted, refracted, resisted – through utopian moments of friendship, through twisted nursery rhymes, reconceived myths, and a new language that Towsey calls ‘Zomblish.’ Towsey’s are visionary poems which reflect national psychological states, and then go on to shatter them, in order to piece together new, better ones – of ‘Donald Trump saying sorry. / Fiscal reform to favour the many. / My daughter sleeping through the night.’ A better England – a better world – is possible, and Towsey’s poems hold out that hope:
Build me a picket fence,
form me a queue.
Shall we sit for days on end
and talk as weather beats on tents?
The light that sets on the British Empire
points from yesterday to a new tomorrow.
This land might grow a new beginning.
This generation must find a way.
There must be a salve.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
Saturday 23 November 2019
Review by Bobba Cass of Author Event with Carol Leeming MBE FRSA at Everybody's Reading Festival 2019
This evening of the festival celebrated the writing of one of Leicester's outstanding poets. Carol Leeming read from her contributions to collections about Leicester, Welcome to Leicester and An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicester, and from her own publications, The Declamations of Cool Eye and the forthcoming, The Eclipse of Dread. The poetry moved from place to person to politics, giving the audience an integration of intensity and vision.
And it was an audience to honour our city - diverse in ethnicity, gender and age with a particular De Montfort University following from the Confucius Institute. Perhaps outstanding was the selection from Love the Life You Live, Live the Life You Love, the second of what will be a choreopoem trilogy. Here Leeming's rootedness in Leicester enables a monologue sustained in dialect and rude in reflection.
And the audience went away wanting more. The Eclipse of Dread promises to be an excoriation of Thatcher's Britain with scrutinies most apposite for our times.
About the reviewer
Bobba Cass is a grey poet and gay grandad who organises a monthly open-mic poetry event, Pinggg...K!, and writes children's fables for Creatures Creatives Collective.
Monday 11 November 2019
In 1975 the French novelist and filmmaker Georges Perec spent three days recording the everyday events he witnessed through different café windows in the Saint-Sulpice Square. The result of this became the much-loved An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, a short collection of observations that has since been held up as an example of good writing. It is an eerie, fascinating read, turning the somewhat innocent act of people watching into something more surreal and sinister. The short book takes the reader on a journey of secrecy, privacy and voyeurism. So much so, that Perec’s piece deserves to be on the bookshelf next to the best collections of Raymond Carver, who in turn was fascinated by and wrote about similar subjects.
Inspired by Perec’s work, writer Jon Wilkins has published and contributed to his own attempt at exhausting a place. His new anthology An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicester brings together seventy-three separate pieces comprising stories, poetry and monologues by a whole host of writers in an attempt to wring out everything that makes up the city of Leicester. And there is some rich material to exploit. Authors such as Colin Wilson, Sue Townsend, Joe Orton and Julian Barnes were all born of the city. In recent times there has been the exhumation and reburial of Richard III and of course Leicester City’s Premier league win of 2016. But it is the little things written about the city that hold the most pleasure. Poet and musician Lauren M Foster’s poem, 'Bus Stop, Woodhouse Eaves,' opens with the lines:
And goes on to describe two separate conversations which end with the poet graffitiing the bus stop timetable whilst waiting for the bus that never arrives. This short poem best captures the inconsequential moments that Perec was striving for when he wrote his Paris project. So too does Lisa Williams’s flash fiction piece, 'Community,' which captures a ripple-effect moment in Victoria Park that is as beautiful as it is satirical. There are also reminisces of being bought apples from Leicester market and political poems of belonging. But the best parts of this anthology are the ones which read like a water-damaged love letter to the small moments as they happen in the city - which Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris was all about.
About the reviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He has just completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.