Tuesday 18 July 2023

Review by Peter Raynard of "From Our Own Fire" by William Letford

As a planet we may or may not be near an apocalyptic ending. But the notion of such an event, whether triggered by contagion, nuclear war, robotic takeover, or ecological disaster, has never been more in the forefront of our minds. Art has reacted, as it should, through books like The Road, and TV series such as Black Mirror and Sweet Tooth.

Letford’s latest book From Our Own Fire (his first in seven years), is a speculative poetic response to this contemporary terror, one that takes a very different path both in form and subject from his previous work.

          The global economy is gone
          Good. It was just
          murmurations in the sky
          Opulent and undecipherable

The book is written as the journal of a stonemason and his working-class family, the Macallums. Hybrid in form, a page of prose is followed by a linked poem throughout. 

We are embedded in the family’s survivalist response to what appears an hyper-capitalist gear change by the ruling elites. A rogue robot, The Intelligence, nicknamed Andy by the family, is on the loose, casting chaotic AI on an already chaotic situation. ‘During the days Andy worked on the messages, the Baked Bean hoarders were out in force. Supermarket shelves emptied and people stepped out of their front doors like meerkats. In the middle of the madness, Joomack invited me to a tattoo party.’

In Letford’s first two Carcanet collections (Bevel in 2012, then Dirt in 2016), his ambit was the lives of the working class. The loiterers, barflies, manual workers, from the place he came from, and those of his travels. Giving voice to the working class, often with the lyricism of the Scottish dialect. 

From Our Own Fire has a similar cast list, but is a much more inventive and frightening book for all that it foreshadows. It could have been overdramatic, but in Letford’s hands it is done with poignancy, humour, and beauty.

About the reviewer
Peter Raynard is a disabled working class poet. He is the editor of Proletarian Poetry, featuring over 150 poets. His poetry books are Precarious (Smokestack Books), The Combination: A Poetic Coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters), both in 2018, and Manland (Nine Arches Press) in July 2022. His debut pamphlet The Harlot and the Rake: Poems after William Hogarth, an ekphrastic heroic crown of sonnets, is forthcoming in September 2023, with Culture Matters. Instagram & Threads: @peteraynard

Saturday 15 July 2023

Review by Kathleen Bell of "Last Poems" by Thomas Kinsella

There’s something daunting about a first encounter with a poet through a volume called Last Poems, especially when the back cover identifies him as "one of the great poets of the last century." I began towards the end of the book, with poems not previously published (some revisions of early work but many from the last year of Kinsella’s life). The poem "Our Home" is short and undated:

           Our Home,
           Pearl blue and far, small,
           small in the dark.
                                    A pearl,
           I can scarcely believe what goes on there.

In only twenty-one words, two of them repeated, Kinsella has achieved a poem that, with its combination of marvelling and questioning, lodges in the mind. It evokes the first colour pictures of Earth from outer space and, by simply expressing incredulity, gestures towards large questions of ethics. 

Ethical questions are at the heart of many of Kinsella’s poems – raised but left unresolved. "Retrospect" is a history of warfare, its craft and its rituals including the recent opening of opportunities to a wider cross-section of the population, as:

           the craft of warfare opened its embrace
           to the base-born, excluded until now
           or butchered by the way.
                                                 Allowed at last
           an equal role in serious affairs,
           the humble multitudes were drilled – skilled – 
           in dull disorder, uniform and drab,
           to slay each other over the long term.

The poem offers no solution but concludes with an image of greater destruction that suggests both rapture and, disturbingly, play.

Beside Kinsella’s concern with ethics lies a serious interest in metaphysics that is unafraid to use terms such as "grace" and "God." Grace, which in "Love  Joy  Peace" is described as "a light cast from the world to come" may be an aid to the poet’s own work:

                                                Grace as routine.
           The lone artificer loosening the charged facts
           from an imagination arguing with itself
           until the ache is eased

but is also found in human desire when flesh says "all it can of love." 

Illness and death are an unsurprising theme of many late poems. "Delirium" ends with a longing for escape from a screened-off bed where unwelcome visitors: "Come to see me sick / that would not see me well." By contrast, one of the very last poems Kinsella wrote looks from past to future:

          Fingers caress and bent brow is is cooled
          forever in a music
          of a world beyond this world.

These are not poems to be read swiftly, relished once and set aside. They are often, for all their music, discomforting. Their uncertainties, questionings and images lure the reader to wonder and return.

About the reviewer
Kathleen Bell’s recent poetry publications include the collection Disappearances (Sheostring, 2021) and the pamphlet Do You Know How Kind I Am? (Leafe Press, 2021). She has also published several short stories. Kathleen lives near Nottingham and enjoys leading creative writing workshops and giving readings. She is currently obsessed with the life and times of James Watt (1736-1819).

Tuesday 11 July 2023

Review by Christine Hammond of "The Pretence of Understanding" by Beth Davies

When you read The Pretence of Understanding (The Poetry Business), it’s not hard to see why Beth Davies won the 2022 New Poet’s Prize. 

Her debut collection is a considered response to the realities of transition, exploring both the resultant rewards and losses. Her voice is clear and unambiguous. It re-visits childhood, acknowledging the immovable family roots that are woven in and uses them to help make sense of past and present experiences.  

There is a reflective tension throughout. A sense of belonging and valuing what matters competes with the inevitable change, autonomy and distraction that come with leaving home, university life and starting work, as seen in “A Plea for Future Winters”:

           … if one day, these Christmas card mornings cannot
           make me child again, throw a snowball 
           In my face. 

Davies dedicates this volume to her Grandparents and there are several poems that will resonate with anyone who has known the sorrow of dealing with elderly relatives and witnessing the slow decline. “The Garden at William Street” uses their overgrown garden as a metaphor:

          Later at the care home, you don’t notice 
         our scratched legs, dirty shoes, the tang
         of grass clippings. Your mind is too overgrown,
         your words behind thorns, my name
         a house you cannot reach. I hold your hand
         wishing I could tame that wilderness.

There may be retrospection in this collection, but there is no sense of over-sentimentality or sugar-coating. The poetry has its own motif of loss, decay, decline and death. This is often intelligently articulated using nature, notably through a lens of some of its not-so-cute inhabitants such as rats, crabs, insects, earthworms and (rotting) fish. The restrained, everyday portrayal of their visceral fates subtly serves to remind us on a metaphysical level of our own human experience.

About the reviewer
Christine Hammond began writing poetry while studying English at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her early poems were published in The Gown (QUB), The Female Line (NIWRM) and Women’s News where, as one of the original members she also wrote Arts Reviews and had work published in Spare Rib. She returned to writing again after a long absence and her poetry has been featured in a variety of anthologies including The Poet’s Place and Movement (Poetry in Motion – The Community Arts Partnership), The Sea (Rebel Poetry Ireland), all three editions of Washing Windows and Her Other Language (Arlen House) and she has also been a reader at Purely Poetry - Open Mic Night, Belfast.

Thursday 6 July 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "Ventriloquise" by Ned Denny

As might be expected for a collection calling itself Ventriloquise, Denny delivers up a large number of after-poems: we have work inspired by Mallarmé, Chénier, Heine, Lorca, Wang Wei, Baudelaire, Hugo and more. The casual reader may find themselves daunted by such a range of allusions and reference points, but as Denny remarks in the notes, he does not want to "pretend to an erudition I do not process." We may therefore allow ourselves to dispense with such worries, but we do need to ask if the poems go beyond mere mimicry and puppetry.

Throughout, there is an obsession with light, or the absence or it: we have the sun’s "gold hammer" and "fair lace," sundown making "the forest one blaze of gold," a light bulb’s "imagined honey." Objects and scenes are constantly presented in light or its absence, "woven of dew and light," "the sunset's catastrophic gold" or "light-fatted" fauna. Denny uses these shades to indicate if something is welcoming or ominous, the mood dictated by dawn or dusk.

           A forest on the move,
           her dark frontier

           steals round the earth
           swifter than our drowned cries.

           What can we say
           that does not make light or her
            - from "Night"

Rhyming is highly favoured, and at times, the technique can be distracting from the message of the poem: too often, the content of the poems feels determined by obvious rhyme choices, such as sheep / sleep and girls / curls in "Arrest," love / above in "Clareaudience" or earth / mirth in "Song." However, one of the most enjoyable pieces in the collection is "Dusk: An Antique Song," reliant on rhyming couplets but so full of action and narrative that the reader is swept up in the driving force of the rhyme, even when broken across stanzas.

Still, the poetry is strongest when rhyme is abandoned, but form is retained. The haikai sequence of "Equinox" floods us with pastoral delights. "To the Fates" gives us three beseeching quatrains of reverence, almost like an extended Japanese death poem. Saying that, of particular note is the rhyming "A Dam," a reduced villanelle of sorts that at one point uses a clever homonymic phrase to retain its form.

Elsewhere, we find a type of zen reminiscent of "Old Man River" or "That Lucky Old Sun," Nature shown as a steady constant in contrast to human follies and pursuits. Denny is concerned with the state of humanity, how we respond in a time of constant change ("You put your head in to the hive | and nothing’s quite the same again"), akin to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, itself written at a time of great Augustan change). Novelist Jenny Erpenbeck has written (collected in her work Not A Novel) how Ovid "shows us how all things … are intertwined with one another. In the very moment we lose ourselves as human beings, he sees us at the beginning of something else that lies outside of us and yet contains us." The same can be sensed here, such as "Atlantis" consoling us with the fact that despite the "vast city," "All is beauty and order there."

Given all the literary reference points, one might suspect that Denny is playing with us when he drops in such lines as "In need of advice, we turn to the dead" and "with too much defined meaning | poetry will never sing." However, undoubtedly, these poems do stand on their own, and sing to us a song of warning and remembrance, to not rush into our new "iron age" of modernity, but to stop and recall a simpler time of light, and of a kinder humanity.

About the reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is Apocrypha: Collected Early Poems (Cyberwit, 2022). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.