Thursday 27 October 2022

Review by Tracey Foster of "Modern Nature" by Derek Jarman

There’s an omnipresent overseer throughout Jarman’s Modern Nature. It manifests in different forms as he switches from daily records of the garden at Prospect Cottage, to a memoir of his childhood and life as a film producer - from the looming presence of Dungeness power station, felt through the thickest fog as his home faced ravaging seas, to the oppressive rule of the teachers at boarding school, ever vigilant for deviant behaviour.

Covering a period from the beginning of 1989 through to September the following year, he begins with the great storm that plunged the cottage into darkness, leaving him with only the beam of the lighthouse to see by. As he watches timbers fly from fishermen’s cottages and hears the wind cry like a banshee around him, he takes us back to Kansas and his nightmare dreams of Oz: "The Wizard of Oz reminds me of the frightening power of movies to move. I’m glad it had a happy ending."

The great city of Emerald, lit up like Dungeness station, is another presence that overshadows the narrative - a hint that we don’t always get what we truly wish for. 

Jarman bought Prospect with his father’s inheritance and moved there when his HIV status became public. The memoir is very poignant as he turned to face his death. Many of his friends had already succumbed to this vicious disease and he must have known that his time was running out as he built a garden in a savage microclimate. Many plants died, succumbed to the salt sprays, turned black and calcified. The temperatures could swing from intense dry heat to bitter blasts, but he persisted and replanted after every storm, gathering stones thrown up by the surges to decorate his patch.  A keen gardener and wide reader, he knew his plants and makes references to their mythical past, cultural symbolism, and power to heal. The prose is beautiful and melancholic: "Today, Dungeness glowed under a pewter sky – shimmering emeralds, arsenic, sap, sage and Verdigris greens washed bright, moss in little islands set off against pink pebbles, glowing yellow banks of gorse, the deep russet of dead bracken, and pale ochre of reeds in clumps set against the willow spinney."

This symphony of colour, intense like no other landscape, is filmic and harks back to the technicolour washes of Oz. A film-maker throughout, he sets scene after scene for us and is mindful of our reaction. During this period of writing, he was also filming War Requiem and includes the scene of poppies from the garden, buzzing with bees.

          Scarlet Poppies
          This is a Poppy
          A flower of cornfield and wasteland
          Bloody red
          Sepals Two
          Soon falling
          Petals four
          Stamens many
          Stigma rayed
          Many seeded
          For sprinkling on bread
          The staff of life
          Woven in wreaths
          In memory of the dead
          Bringer of dreams
          And sweet forgetfulness. 

I can clearly remember the towering black obelisk of 1980s public information films, warning us about the AIDS epidemic. A newly-qualified teacher at the time, I was working under the shadow of Section 28 which forbade schools from "promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." Jarman’s experience of the prejudices and persecution he faced during this period whilst watching his friends "shrivel and parch like the landscape" is harrowing. From his refuge at Prospect, the nature is encompassing and assuaging but also a grim reminder that our time in the garden is finite. The debris he collects from the shores after high tides is dragged back and used to create a sculpture garden of decay, where distorted metal hums to the sound of bees - inspiring him to paint and write.

          No dragons will spring from these circles.
          These stones will not dance or clap hands at the solstice.
          Beached on the shingle,
          They lock up their memories,
          Upright as sentinels
          In the dry grass.

Name dropping throughout his close contacts and work diary, this book will appeal to anyone who is interested in media of the period, but it is the plants who steal the show. It is they he turned to at the end of his day and Prospect Cottage that was his refuge at the end of his life.

About the reviewer
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by Comma Press, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine and The Arts Council.

Saturday 22 October 2022

Review by Gary Day of "The Past Is a Dangerous Driver" by Neal Mason


We live in a world which tolerates the past only as costume drama. Politicians, business people and management theorists are always urging us to ‘make it new.’ So it’s a delight to alight on a poet who understands that we can’t shake off the past as easily a dog does water. Neal Mason’s appreciation of this simple truth is one of the many riches of his collection. His poems, with their often striking images and subtle rhymes, feelingly explore the contradictory nature of the past, how it is both remote and ever present; how can it unfold like a rose or go off like a bomb.  

‘Lineage’ explores the speaker’s relationship with a man who may or may not have been his father. It is family drama, history and detective story, pulsing with conflicting emotions and packed with memorable and haunting phrases: ‘I accelerate through gaps / in history’s traffic to the cottage whose shell / lies in the future where it fell.’

‘Reflected on Water’ is a journey along the Thames with the speaker encountering key figures and events from British history. It teems with allusions and illustrates one of Mason’s themes, that a present without a past is like a world without gravity. Time travel is the subject of ‘The Stratagem,’ a poem that mixes up past and present in disturbing ways, all the more so because of its elegant setting. Sometimes Mason adopts the persona of inanimate objects such as nitrate or trees and imagines how they might view their part in history. My favourite in the collection is ‘The Museum of Lost Art,’ a witty, moving piece on what can never be retrieved: Venus’ arm, the library of Alexandria.

Mason riffs on Eliot’s Four Quartets but his focus is on the many faces of time rather than its redemptive properties.  

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author or editor of a dozen books including a two volume history of modern British poetry. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has been actively involved in amateur theatre for many years.

Friday 21 October 2022

Review by Jane Simmons of "Standing Up with Blake" by Philip Dunn

Philip Dunn’s work has already won him many local admirers, and now his keenly-awaited first collection introduces his work and his poetic voice to a wider audience, beyond the place where ‘the alchemy of dyke and drain / make liquid silver of the leaden skies.’

The opening poems explode into life, taking the reader from the Trump presidency by way of Blake and his visions of angels to the impoverishment of language through the removal of words from the dictionary, the extinction of lambs and lions, and the coming of a world which ‘will henceforth only ever home whatever never takes a breath.’ 

The political and the personal cross paths throughout the collection: it is only ever a small step from internet trolling to political violence, and from the evils of social media to the i-phone literate seven year-old who does not know his own surname or family address.

Dunn knows the value of approaching his subject ‘slant’ – using the song of a blackbird to plunge the reader into WW1 trenches, or skilfully exploiting intertextuality, such as when he uses the title ‘Cant and Culpability’ to make pointed comment on current politics or employs a reference to Jenny Joseph in an example of the wry or self-deprecating humour which is another characteristic of his work.

These poems do not just resonate with concerns about past and current political situations and about social change. Elsewhere, there are poems of considerable tenderness: for the awkward boy, uprooted from his familiar surroundings and hearing ‘the unmistakeable voice of exile’; for first love, ‘the boy on the green bench / burning like a grazed knee’; for relatives becoming increasingly frail in old age; and for a friend struggling with a dementia diagnosis.

Altogether, this is a collection which was well worth the wait.

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a former teacher – and now a PhD student. She won the University of Leicester’s G. S. Fraser poetry prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the Seren Christmas poetry prize in 2020. Her work has appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Blue Nib Magazine and on the Seren blog, as well as being long-listed for the Butcher’s Dog Magazine.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Review by Jane Simmons of "Scenes from Life on Earth," by Kathryn Simmonds

Scenes from Life on Earth is the third collection of poems from Kathryn Simmonds, the follow-up to her 2008 Forward Prize-winning debut collection Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren) and her second collection Visitations (Seren 2013).

The new collection addresses the loss of the poet’s mother, how we grieve, and how we remember those we love; it also explores the related themes of motherhood, of life and death, and how to live in the modern world.

These are big themes, but Simmonds is not afraid to visit them or to explore their mysteries through the prism of her religious faith. That is not to say that the poems themselves are religious poems, or that faith dominates the collection: although there are references to Christ and poems which reference familiar Biblical narratives such as the story of Jonah and the whale, the poet is just as likely to address her big questions or arrive at her celebration of the living or the dead through perceptive observations of the natural world. The meetings of the physical and metaphysical worlds are also sign-posted in the titles of several of the poems which reference tipping points in the week, the months, and the year: 'Wednesday Morning,' 'April,' 'November,' 'Solstice,' 'Equinox.'

Lessons are taught by children, who are presented in ways which might remind the reader of Blake or Wordsworth, but also by plants, birds, insects or even garden weeds and pests such as dandelions or slugs. The war on weeds in 'Dandelion' is mistaken – the plants should be celebrated for their joyous enthusiasm for 'more life.' Elsewhere, the poet asserts that it is better to be a leaf 

          walk about all day, 
          tormented by a brain

The messages from nature are asserted once more in the closing lines of the final poem which provides the title for the collection:

          I loved the trees because
          they had redemption down, 
          oh God be glorified, I loved the trees! 
          The way they ate their old regrets 
                                                   and made them into leaves.

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a former teacher – and now a PhD student. She won the University of Leicester’s G. S. Fraser poetry prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the Seren Christmas poetry prize in 2020. Her work has appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Blue Nib Magazine and on the Seren blog, as well as being long-listed for the Butcher’s Dog Magazine.

Friday 7 October 2022

Review by Robert Hamberger of "What the Trumpet Taught Me" by Kim Moore


Kim Moore’s What the Trumpet Taught Me is an exciting, innovative experiment with the memoir form. It uses precise vignettes of a girl and woman’s experiences with music (specifically, learning to play a cornet and trumpet over the years). These snapshots are short pieces of prose or prose-poetry – often barely longer than a page – which link chronologically to explore themes of family, education, class, gender, sexism, creativity, community, work, desire, bereavement, performance, power and self-empowerment. One of the book's joys is the skilful way that Moore explores these major issues through the prisms of a trumpet and one woman’s life and reflections. 

Given her expertise as a poet, Moore consistently plays a poet’s notes: observation and imagery, rhythm and atmosphere. The writing is absorbing throughout, virtually always in the present tense, which helps to retain its visceral immediacy. I learned too about the history of the cornet and trumpet, technical terms like single tonguing and triple tonguing, the first, second and third valve slide. It’s packed with stunning, painful insights. Here’s one: ‘I think back to all the men I’ve been taught by and my relief when they only do their job, my gratitude.’ 

Just over halfway through the book there’s a chilling depiction of an abusive relationship. The narrative trembles from its after-effects, and the reader wants the narrator to reclaim herself, feels relieved when she does so. Her trumpet remains a positive presence, companion and instrument of ultimate triumph. What the Trumpet Taught Me gives us music as stirring as any brass or soul band. It’s an engrossing and moving achievement. 

About the reviewer
Robert Hamberger’s fourth poetry collection Blue Wallpaper (Waterloo Press) was shortlisted for the 2020 Polari prize. His prose memoir with poems A Length of Road: Finding Myself in the Footsteps of John Clare was published by John Murray in 2021.  

You can read more about What the Trumpet Taught Me by Kim Moore on Creative Writing at Leicester here