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Sheenagh Pugh

Steve Ely's previous collection, Oswald's Book of Hours, which I reviewed here, was by some way the most memorable and unusual collection I read in 2013. It felt like quite a short, tight collection, not in the sense of inhibited but economical, every word working like mad. Englaland is much longer, looser and baggier, more sprawling, but there is a good reason for that; it is trying to portray a whole culture, and over a period of a millennium and more. The back cover suggests this culture is that of "the English" but that doesn't seem to me to be quite so: it is pretty specifically Northern. And as in Oswald's Book of Hours, the past continually collides with the present, is in the present – the epigraph to the collection's first section is William Faulkner's "The past is never dead. It is not even past."

There are seven sections, and in the first, he cuts cinematically between stragglers from the 10th-century battle of Brunanburh, fleeing and pursuing each other, and twentieth-century lads in the same landscape, trespassing, bird-nesting, looking for a fight. Those seeking refuge in the stream, aware of "waterline, rat tunnels, hand-holds for drowners" could be from either time, and the victors of Brunanburh who "ride garlanded in ears" are reminiscent, purposely no doubt, of the Falklands War soldier from Oswald's Book of Hours who did the same.

Indeed, though I said the book was looser and more expansive than its predecessor, it is full of linking chains of images, words, places – the landscapes of the Ryknild ridge and Frickley Park, which first appear here, will crop up in other sections, and the question in the first section "Whose is this land?" is the theme of the third section, "Common", which is all about ownership, particularly of land (trespass and poaching figure throughout the book, but most here). In the fifth section, "The Harrowing of the North", past and present are again linked indissolubly by one of these chains. Here, the effect on the north (and elsewhere, but the "elsewhere" isn't exactly stressed) of the miners' strikes and pit closures of the 1980s is compared with the punitive action waged in the north of England in 1069 by William of Normandy (generally known in this book as William the Bastard, which is pleasantly familiar to one used to his Welsh name of Gwilym Bastert). The narrator of "Ballad of the Scabs" mocks the UDM for their optimistic belief that co-operating with the government would save their pits:

And Foulstone, Butcher, Taylor,
how's your job for life?

The next poem, "1069", shows William conquering by dividing his enemies: "he bought off Osbjorn and bribed Malcolm of Scots". This poem ends with the words of the Domesday Book recording the names of villages laid waste in this conflict: "Warter, wasta, Wetwang, wasta, Wichum, wasta…" And the next poem, which returns to the present to show a dying, demoralised ex-pit village, is titled "Wasta"... There could scarcely be a simpler or more effective way to link past and present, to assert, as the earl of Newcastle once said without result to his unsatisfactory pupil the young Charles I, "what you read, I would have it history that so you might compare the dead with the living; for the same humours is now as was then, there is no alteration but in names." Nor does it end here: poem titles like "Search and Destroy", a litany of the names of dead pits, and the image, (when a disused pit is demolished in "A sin and a shame") of a crew dynamiting "the twin towers/of the winding gear" leave no way to see the proceedings except in terms of war.

There is considerable variety of form in this collection. Quite apart from the fact that one section is a short play and another an extended narrative in alliterative verse, there are ballads, prose-poems and the same creative use of white space and shaping familiar from his earlier collection. The alliterative piece, "Big Billy", in fact puzzles me slightly, because I'm not sure what role it plays in the pattern. Everywhere else in the book, the battles are about something: access to land, identity, holding on to what one has. Billy, a prizefighter, seems to fight for no better cause than to prove who's the best at punching and gouging (there is money involved but that clearly is not why it is happening). My best guess is that Billy represents fighting spirit in its purest form, but if he is being seen as a hero, which I think he is, then his name is a conundrum, because Norman William is no hero in the rest of this book. I suppose it could be mere coincidence, but it is a measure of the craft of this collection that I find it hard to credit that anything here is done for no reason. Though I'm unsure what this section is trying to do, what works brilliantly in it is the exuberance of the language, particularly for flyting purposes. I hadn't realised what a great medium alliterative verse can be for insulting people: "valourless-vagrant, vile vardo-vagabond".

The least poetically successful section seemed to me to be the sixth, "Mongrel Blood Imperium" which considers the various cultures and ethnicities that inhabit the landscape. I don't know if it's an overwhelming desire to convince, but at times in this section (eg "Acts of Union") the verbal music seemed to go missing, to be replaced by flatter, prosier statements than he normally deals in. I think something similar happens when he assumes Peter Mandelson's voice in "Scum of the Earth", the playlet. Not to be ungrateful, because any play in which Mandelson and Wellington fight each other and both get killed is an enchanting thought, but Mandelson's voice would be funnier and more biting satire if he were saying things he might actually say, as Burns makes "Holy Willie" do, rather than things an opponent might put unconvincingly into his mouth.

The last section, "The Song of the Yellowhammer", harks back to Brunanburh and its victor Athelstan, described by his contemporary the poet Egil as a "golden-haired Aetheling". This long, mesmerising poem is literally flooded with the colour yellow – corn, cheese, gold, ragwort, dandelions, gorse, sand, pears, a yellow moon:

The white-tailed eagle's
sunlit eye
tracks Humber's gullet
along Ouse, Don and Ea
to the slow blonde stones
and saffron clays of Hampole.
An orchard
of yellow pears.
Aureate moon, soft light of xanthic tallow.

It's a landscape with a golden haze on it. There seems to be a tentative hope such as George Mackay Brown sometimes expressed, that landscape will survive what people do to it and that they may eventually return to the land with a keener appreciation of it.

For most of this collection, and there's a lot of it, 200 pages no less, one is in the presence of the same linguistic exuberance, intellectual vigour and keen sense of living history as in Oswald's Book of Hours, and that's reason enough to buy any book. It's also very ambitious, far more so than most of the neat, controlled 64 or 72-pagers you'll read this year. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the title: what's that about, then? On one level, "Englaland" obviously carries an echo of "la la land". But modern words, place-names especially, tend to be worn-down versions of older ones, and just as Bolton, in this book, is occasionally Bodelton, depending on who is speaking and when, so this was, and still is, Angle-land, and there's your third syllable. The past is not past: it is in the present and intrinsic to it; it is how the present came to be.
Sheenagh Pugh

This is a debut collection, uneven but with plenty of vim and interest in its language and concerns. The mid-section is the one most obviously themed, concerning a violent and abusive relationship; the other two sections are more disparate, though the third contains several poems either "after" named people or titled for them.

In her best poems, she assembles objects and events with a sure sense of their significance – in "I'm Thinking of my Father" a man haunted by his brother's impending death feeds a fire obsessively:

             and he doesn't care about splinters
or safety, as long as the fire gets higher.

All the stone lions and grave little gnomes
in their cheerful red breeches are waiting
and the lamp that's addicted to heat
flickers on, flickers off, and the lawn sits

in its shadows and dark and its falsehood
and the ending begins with its terrible face

Another impressive poem is "Red Man's Way", its language apparently uncomplicated but working, with its rhythms, perfectly:
             I feel full,
as if one person can't carry this with them

and be unchanged, as if I could speak seagull
and they would come cursing, articulate,

their wings the colour of sky.

The whole of the second section is powerful, finding some telling images for the relationship - "The World's Smallest Man", in which the speaker imagines the "you" figure smaller and smaller, until the poem ends in a finely achieved ambiguity:

till you are less than a grain of salt
so small, you are living on my skin.
And once I breathe, I breathe you in.

And in "Body, Remember" she takes the Cavafy poem where he urges his body to recall both the pleasures it has known and all those it hasn't, but she uses it inventively by having her speaker, instead, resolve to remember the feel of danger.

I said it was uneven and there are certainly individual poems that fall below par, notably "Tuesday at Wetherspoons", where apparently "all the men have comb-overs,/bellies like cakes just baked" – what, all? That's just lazy stereotyping. But what worries me a little more is a rhetorical technique, which thanks to contact with some recent A-level students, I now know is called anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of every sentence or new proposition. For instance, in "When I Was A Thing With Feathers" the operative word, which defines all the syntax, is "when":

when feathers pierced my skin growing from within,
when I tried to let my head fall to my hands and found
only wings, when I was able to fly

In other poems, words like "and", "this", "by", or phrases like "some people", fulfil the same semantic function. Now there's nothing wrong with this in any individual instance, but by my count about a third of the poems use this device, and then it starts looking less like a rhetorical device and more like a method of composition. Again, we all have ways of coming by a poem, and this one can be as good as any, but when used too often it can start to look like an exercise. It's awfully easy for poets to develop tics, to get into habits of automatically using the same ways of working, and then they need to steer clear of the comfort zone for a while. I don't think any of the poems I most admired in the collection used this technique, but that might be partly because after the third or fourth time it cropped up, it was feeling predictable.

But the main impression the collection left with me was of language used with considerable skill and power, and often also surprise. Those who think the "myth-kitty" outmoded and unusable might care to reflect on how it is renewed in "Translation":

Don't we all have a little Echo in us, our voices stolen,
only able to repeat what has already been said:
you made me do it, he says, and we call back do it, do it.
Sheenagh Pugh
Why am I reviewing a novel from 2013? Maybe because it's a "genre" novel (historical detective) and I'm tired of people pigeonholing genre novels and not expecting them to raise the sort of questions you'd expect in a litfic novel, when in fact they crop up just as regularly.

For those who aren't already fans, Wishart's detective hero is an upper-class Roman layabout called Marcus Corvinus with not much time for his own class, and a talent for furkling about finding out the truth of things others want to hide. He also happens to talk like the Roman equivalent of a Raymond Chandler hero. He and his slightly anarchic household are the source of a lot of incidental humour in the books.

This one is set in the small town of Bovillae, where the local senate has asked Corvinus to look into the recent murder of the censor-elect, Caesius, an upstanding citizen with a squeaky-clean reputation who was found with his head beaten in near the back door of the local brothel (where the madame cheerfully admits he was a regular customer). The town dignitaries are fearfully embarrassed about this, but as Corvinus soon discovers, they have worse things to be embarrassed about. The town lawyer (Novius, whom we've met in a previous book) has a long and shady past: civic dignitaries Manlius and Canidius are up to their ears in a financial scam, even the local antique dealer does a good line in fakes and almost nobody is telling the truth about where they were, or with whom, on a certain evening…. Solid citizens often have things to hide.

But what of the victim: was he as solid as he seemed? Opinion is divided. Those who knew him as a politician and businessman give him a good name for probity. But his closest relatives, his brother and nephew, do not hide their contempt for him (though they do hide the reason). Granted, the brother is the town drunk and the nephew a ne'er-do-well. But might they, for once, be telling more truth than the solid citizens? And why does Anthus, the loyal major-domo who is never done singing his late master's praises, utter the rather equivocal encomium "He was a decent man, at heart"?

This line is in fact key – as is one from another minor character: "He wasn't a bad man, he did his best for the town". Previous Corvinus books, notably Food for the Fishes, have stressed the difference between what was legal in Rome, and what was socially acceptable. Divorce, for instance, was quite legal, as was killing a slave for no good reason, but neither would do you much good either socially or professionally. The same disconnect comes up here, but this time in relation to a different activity. Another thing I get tired of is the assumption that historical novels are somehow turned away from our own time, indifferent to "contemporary" problems which are the preserve of litfic. The secret Caesius was keeping could hardly be more relevant or "contemporary".

And the odd thing is that at a couple of points, I nearly guessed it; there are clues left, if you listen to them. But I persuaded myself it couldn't be so, because I couldn't equate it with the facts and opinions I was hearing. Now the reason it doesn’t square with certain alleged facts is simple: people are lying through their teeth (as again I might have guessed if I'd been a bit more alert). But the opinions are another matter. In the end, the book asks you to compartmentalise to a degree, to accept that a man might do X and still be, in other respects – even "at heart" – a decent man, not a total fraud whose good side was entirely fake. This may be harder for us to do than even for the Romans – I can't see anyone nowadays daring to make the remark that Anthus made. But it makes for a fascinating, thought-provoking read.
Sheenagh Pugh
08 May 2015 @ 09:29 am
This is a VERY old poem; I wrote it in the 80s and it was in my then Selected, but old times come around and around and I just had a yen to post it here. I was a civil servant when I wrote it, and quite enjoyed the challenge of writing a poem in officialese.


As Ministers will be aware already,
the recent spring festival was marred
when a brief but violent incident occurred
in the church. The full facts are not easy
to establish, because accounts vary,

but it seems that on the day in question
hard-working persons with a licence to trade
on church premises, duly granted
by the civic authorities, were upon
their lawful business, when a young man

who had some objection to their presence
began vandalising their property
(mainly currency and pigeons), eventually
driving them out with some violence,
(a whip was rumoured to be in evidence).

The man is a disaffected itinerant
whose motives are not entirely clear;
he is said to have called his victims either
"thieves", or, by another account,
"businessmen". In either event,

for the Minister's interview our advice
is to focus on the clear contempt
for law and order, the arrogant attempt
to impose the whims of minorities
and the interference with private enterprise,

which might very likely have put
jobs at risk. A police investigation
should soon result in charges against the man,
who, though a minor youth cult, is not
in himself a serious threat, it is thought.
Sheenagh Pugh
07 May 2015 @ 08:28 am
Just a personal thought. A poem, to my mind, is or should be an organic whole. That being so, it doesn't actually exist on the lyric heights for the whole of its length; it has peaks and troughs. Every line does not coruscate at you, jumping up and down shouting "notice me!" There are quiet, unremarkable lines, which swell up like waves under the surface of the sea until they foam over into something brilliant. These are lines which can easily be rubbished by a careless reviewer, who will point out the "boring" or "predictable" language, but in fact they are paving the way for what comes next. Try for yourself quoting brilliant, memorable single lines from a poem. Do they work outside their context? Would you not often feel impelled to quote the few lines before, to show where they emerged from, what they convey: why, in short, they are so brilliant and memorable?
Now there's a type of poem much written and admired, in fact often known informally as a "competition poem", which does try to make every line a peak. It isn't an organic whole; it is a series of flashy, notice-me lines which don't obviously grow from the poem. I don't care for these poems, finding them shouty and ultimately unmemorable because they are trying too hard to be unforgettable. But there's another thing, connected with the fact that these lines don't seem to grow naturally from the poem. They don't seem to come from anywhere, and paradoxically when a line doesn't come from anywhere, it COULD actually come from anywhere, including where it shouldn't. In fact, when marking student work, this kind of poem rings alarm bells. There might be all sorts of reasons for derivative work, but I'll put forward the notion that thinking in terms of fine phrases, knockout lines, moments rather than whole poems, might be one of them.
Sheenagh Pugh
25 April 2015 @ 02:28 pm
Have just read a review of a collection by a new young poet, which encapsulates everything I think is wrong with reviewing at the moment. Humourless, pious, under the illusion that certain objects or subjects are "unpoetic" (can you tell me why a bottle of Fanta ought "rightly" not to be in a poem?). When it isn't being completely opaque - what does " The images and language do not smear together in a smooth arc at the steady pace of a walk" even mean? - it is castigating the author for writing the poem she wanted to write, rather than the one the reviewer thinks she should have wanted to write, a cardinal fault in any review:

"She is inconsistent in her sensitivity to the connotations of the objects she allows to feature in her poems; twice she makes mention of Pirates of the Caribbean in a collection which is thirsty for a considered comment on piracy, a pertinent and timely topic."

Considering that this review elsewhere criticises the poet for "confusing flippancy with humour" (well, I'd say flippancy was a type of humour, but there...) this is the most stuffy lack of ANY kind of humour that can well be imagined. It takes me back to when a magazine editor told me he didn't think snooker suitable subject-matter for a poem. But that was decades ago; I thought we'd got past that sort of stuffy snobbery. It's also ironic that the critic has been accusing the poet of being preachy (possibly with reason, possibly not; one can't tell because the assertion is not backed up with quotes, despite the fact that this is an online review that doesn't need a word limit) and then comes up with this insufferably preachy comment about the collection being "thirsty for a considered comment on piracy".

But it is when we get on to our critic's personal dislike of beetroot sandwiches that he/she (the name is ambiguous) goes completely OTT: "There are other graceless flashes. At points she fills your mental palate with claggy images of her quite revolting-sounding lunches; her ‘courgette pie’, the beetroot and ‘dense’ bread of her sandwiches. The delicate, interesting play of olfactory stimulation that is a strength of this collection elsewhere is clouded and blotted out by these dreadful evocations.".

Does our critic not see how completely subjective this is, and how little it belongs in a review of a poetry collection?

Just to make things clear, I have met neither poet nor critic, have no axe to grind and haven't read the collection. The review is not, incidentally, wholly hostile; at the end it offers praise, but in a way so patronising to the reader of the review as to be off-putting: "I must coolly but seriously insist that you read all three of these last mentioned poems during which the whole piece fuses together yet remains definitively divided and neatly, sensitively, wisely, craft-fully concluded. And in order to read them and understand their true pedigree and meaning I must insist that you also read the full collection beforehand." (Must you, indeed? I think I'll be the judge of that.) No lines are quoted in full; indeed hardly a phrase of the poet's is quoted at all, another cardinal fault, so we have no means of knowing whether the critic's taste is any guide for ours and are simply asked - no -ordered - to take it on trust in this sentence that sounds as if it came from a brash sixth-former new to the game. Ach y fi....
Sheenagh Pugh

I leave the hospital in full autumn – fog
and, when you can find it
a yellow blaze that remembers love for

It may sound odd, after quoting lines like those, to say; when you first read this, don't read it as if it were a poem. But though the language and cadences are clearly those of poetry, the narrative structure is that of a noir crime novel. The I in those lines is Ines, short for Inessential, a poet whose political and anti-religious views have attracted the attention both of a state secret agent and a bunch of religious fanatics, and who is recovering after having been shot. Whodunnit is a question that occupies both Ines and the policeman who becomes her friend/admirer, Cop (short for Copernicus) Smith. There are several possible suspects, including Charl (Charlatan), a media mogul, Orphée, an older poet/songwriter who resents her for being the anti-establishment figure he was once thought to be, and CS (Current Sweetheart), a younger, female poet who resents her for being alive and in the way of her own success:

She does
have to die first. 'Cause I'm
the younger poet.

There's also a murder which has already taken place and been recorded on a video: the victim being a young woman called Harvard Washington but known as Harry, and the murderer a man who is for a long time called Hooded, until he becomes Verball.

It should be clear by now, firstly, that there's a lot of grim, wry humour about this book (her coinage for the internet, The Garble, is priceless), secondly, that it has a lot to do with the place of poetry in contemporary society (bear in mind, as you read, that it was written at the time of Hurricane Katrina, which explains some of its apocalyptic mood) and thirdly, that it is very unlike most books of poetry. Indeed if you don't normally like or read poetry, it might be just the book to start with, though if you do already read poetry, it should come as a welcome (or at the very least, bracing) change from what you normally read.

I first came across it when Notley read some of these poems at the STAnza poetry festival. She gave far the most dramatic, energetic reading I'd ever heard. I haven't been able to find any example online of her reading from this book, and the readings I have found, like this one from Disobedience, though they convey some of her energy and humour, don't quite have the force I felt from her stage presence, which was electrifying. I wasn't sure afterwards how much of the effect was down to her and how much to the work itself. I can say now, having read it, that Negativity's Kiss is indeed a powerful piece of writing that works on the printed page, though if you ever get the chance to hear her read from it, I strongly urge you not to miss it. The exchange between "every religion" and Ines had, when she read it, a stunning effect on its audience, but is still memorable here:

you must sign up with an acknowledged

detailed dogmatic form of superstition
rites in a language ancient or
glossolalian, or one of our fanatics may
break free of our benign moral constraints
and shoot you. We are aware that you have
            been shot once before
we would be sorry if you got shot again.

I Ines say: go to hell […]

may your temples of cosmic allegations collapse
may your myths be forgotten
may your prophets and saints and patriarchs
finally die into the unmemorized night
Sheenagh Pugh

Normally one of my criteria for reviewing something on this blog is that it might need a bit of publicity, which Glück clearly does not. But I'm making an exception for this, not just because Glück is one of my favourite living poets but because none of the reviews I've seen of this seem to mention what, to me, is quite a major aspect of it.

There are two distinct personae in it, both of whom use the "I" voice. Not all the poems are in these two voices, in particular the prose poems tend not to be, but many are. The first voice is female, a writer; her parents are dead and she has, or had, a younger sister who may also be dead. This "I" voice, or one very like it, has appeared in Glück's work before. The second voice is male, and has a back-story involving the death of his parents in a car accident when he was a young child. He is a painter and has an older brother. For most of the book, it is always clear which persona we are listening to, but the last two poems in the "I" voice, "The Story of a Day" and "A Summer Garden" could, it seems to me, be in either voice, and in the final prose poem, "The Couple in the Park", it is possible that they both appear - it begins "A man walks alone in the park and beside him a woman walks, also alone".

It's entirely possible that both these constructs are different facets of one personality; also that they aren't. There are motifs that run through both narratives – a phone ringing, a head-resting-on-hands gesture, a sycamore tree. There is also, in the poem "Afterword", a handy reminder of the role of the word "I" in a poem:

One speaks a word: I.
Out of this stream
the great forms-

I took a deep breath. And it came to me
the person who drew that breath
was not the person in my story, his childish hand
confidently wielding the crayon-

Had I been that person?

One of the best things about this collection is the way the constant persona shifts force the reader to question the word "I" whenever it appears.

In many ways, this is one of her most elusive collections and I'm not at all sure I have a handle on it yet. Though it has all her trademark melancholy, where some of her best-known collections, like The Wild Iris and Averno, have centred on the fear of personal extinction, this seems to me to be more concerned with the loss of loved persons and, perhaps, with the essential isolation of being human. It's also often interested in the difficulty of expressing any of this in art, the art of words included, and often sounds a note of frustration.

Yet of course, being Glück, it succeeds, over and over, in encapsulating a world of loss, nostalgia, regret into a few memorable lines – as in "The Sword in the Stone":

I walked awhile, staring into the windows of the galleries-
my friends had become famous.

or the writer-persona's conversation with her dead mother in "Visitors from Abroad":

My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.

We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of  your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister —you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.


The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow
and the trees glittering, encased with ice.

I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.

I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.
Sheenagh Pugh

Clocks. Rivers. Skylights. Arches and arcs. Songs. The sea. Henry's poetry is becoming not just more and more musical but more fugue-like, forever picking up themes and motifs from earlier work that deepen and grow more haunting each time he does so. His first collection, decades back, was called Time Pieces, and ever since, the passing of time has sounded in his work; the stone his younger ghost-self kicks through a Sixties housing estate in this book is "four million today"; has been there since the estate was a primeval swamp. He is "kicking a time piece".

The names of former neighbours inhabit this long poem as the names of women inhabited his spellbinding long poem "Penllain" from The Brittle Sea and earlier poems, notably in The Milk Thief. To me, at least, the name-listing in "Kicking the Stone" does not have quite the same resonance as that; I think because these are neighbours and friends, while Catrin Sands, Brown Helen and the rest were family (anyone biographically minded who wants to know more about them may care to look at the interview Henry gave here). In fact the final section of "Kicking the Stone" rises quite suddenly to a new height of impassioned involvement:

O scuff of sunny dust,
preserve this woman's song
only the stone and I can hear
up the unfinished road.

Preserve this woman's song
that finds the sea in a stone
as we pass by, up the road,
up the unfinished song.

And I think this heightened intensity can only be because the "musical house" where this happens, where a soprano is rehearsing, has to be Henry's own childhood home (his mother was a professional singer).

Brown Helen and the others do in fact recur by name in two poems: "Wardrobe Time" and "Brown Helen on Harbour Beach", and both have not just a nostalgic but a slightly elegiac tone, as if he might be saying goodbye to them. I sort of hope not, because they have become familiar and loved ghosts to the reader as well as the poet, but work does move on. Family life has always been important in his poems, but in this collection the protagonist is distanced from his family; in the collection's first poem, "Usk", the eponymous river is both the distance and the link between the speaker, "upstream", and the "you" he addresses, in the "mess of streets" where the river turns to sludge (ie, Newport). And the "boys" whose childhood has featured in earlier collections are distanced not only in space but by time, the adulthood which brings independence and loosens parental ties.  In "Late Kick-Off"  the ghost-boys return in fancy:

They are coming back to me
taller than I imagined
and too old to warm inside my fleece.
It has been too long.
They must be cold by now.
I'll warm up the engine.

Those three short sentences at the end: a reminder that Henry has always been skilled at using the unromantic tools of sentence structure to create pace, tension, emotion.  He must also be one of the most skilled and unobtrusive rhymers currently working; his natural musicality lends itself to form, but it's a different and more verbal skill that makes the rhyme in "Blackrock: the Bedsit Years" read so unforced:

The lost years owned a rent-book
and sometimes fell behind.
Damp, second-hand,
they clung to what they took,
sang between cracked walls,
had plans, murdered mice,
came and went, imprecise
in their choice of doorbells.

"Davy Blackrock", a new character in his work, is a sort of modern avatar of the 18th-century harpist and composer Dafydd Owen, better known as Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), who is remembered today for the tune that bears his name. There is a fair amount of humour in Davy, but also much darkness. The final poem of both this section and the collection is neither up- nor downbeat; it expresses inevitability, the way our past shapes us and the necessity of living with that:

However badly we played our love,
slipped out of key, this song.

It will not forget us, haunts us now,
plays us into the dusk, this song.

It seems appropriate, in such a music-haunted, crafted collection, that this final poem is called "Song" and is a ghazal. But the poem that strikes me as most like a keynote for this collection would probably be "Under the River", both for its musicality, the way it uses refrain and the alternating short and long sentences to drive its rhythms, and for the way he has always had of seeing inside and beyond things:

Under the river a deeper river runs.
It is simply a case of pressing your ear
your heart to the bank, about here,
then of listening to its quieter turns

to the voices of loved ones
you thought would never rise again,
holding you now, with an old refrain.
Under the river a deeper river runs.
Sheenagh Pugh

Elizabeth Melville (c1578-1640) was the earliest female Scottish poet to have her work appear in print. It is powerful, accomplished and shows great technical mastery. Yet the Oxford and Penguin Books of Scottish Verse ignore it; only in recent anthologies of women's verse has it appeared. Why so long a wait? A long-standing tendency for academics to underrate women's poetry is certainly part of it; so, perhaps, may be the fact that much of her poetry, until lately, was only available in manuscript form and thus less likely to attract the less thorough anthologist. It is also possible that being written in Scots has told against it; even Dunbar and Henryson are not as highly rated in the wider English-speaking world as they should be.

But when Jamie Reid Baxter, editor of this volume, spoke on Melville at St Andrews recently, he suggested another reason: her uncompromising subject matter. Her one theme is religion: she writes as a Presbyterian, conscious of sin, believing she can be saved not by her own merit, nor by any intermediary like a saint or a priest, but only by her direct relationship with God. It follows that when she does not sense his presence in her life, she experiences deep sensations of loss and grief, while the moments when she does have an intermittent sense of his grace are so intense as to be hard for a modern reader to share, unless indeed one reads them as one would a love-poem to a human being. Most religious poets – Herbert, Donne – sometimes sound like love-poets, but female religious poets like the Welsh hymn-writer Ann Griffiths are particularly apt to do so, and Melville certainly does:

thee alone
my onlie one
the first and eik the last. (Meditation on Psalm 42)

One of the most staggering things about Melville is her metrical virtuosity. In her sacred parody of Marlowe's "Come live with me and be my love", she fashions a corona by picking up words from the last line of one verse in the first of the next:

Come live with me and be my love
And all these pleasurs thou shalt prove
That in my word hath warned thee
O loath this life and live with me

This life is but a blast of breath
Nothing so sure as dreadful death
And since the time no man can know
Sett not thy love on things below

For things below will wear away
And beautie brave will soon decay
Look to that life that lasts for ever
And love the love that failes thee never

I never failed thee in thy need….

and she keeps this up for three more pages, never sounding in the least forced. In sonnets to Andrew Melville, she employs the fiendishly difficult rime batelée, where the end-rhyme of one line is picked up internally in the next:

Do not complain to suffer heir a space
A schour of grace unto thy saull sall raine
This world in vaine sall seik to spoill thy peace

She is adept at anagrams, alliterative constructions, writing words to complicated psalm and song tunes. Technically she is the equal of any poet of her time (or of many other times) and the superior of most. But she is not, ever, your dry-as-dust technician. Her meditations on her relationship with God are thought-provoking and by no means always expected or conventional:

Oh qhuat is man
Lord think I than
that thow began
thy great and wonderous works for him alone
thow did not spair
thy angells fair
but punisch'd sair
thair pride and banisch'd them out of thy throne
and put them clein away
out of thy sicht
preferring dust and clay
to angels bricht.

One would think, too, that even readers who do not share her religious beliefs could share both her sense of loneliness in the world and her exultation at the thought of heavenly justice:

Thou tramps proud tirrants down
under thy feit
and plucks from kings thair crown
quhen thou thinks meit
the humble men
exalts thou then
and lifts the lowlie hairt above the sky
The proud at last
thou dois down cast
and heirs the puir opprest quhen they do cry.

Thanks to Baxter's efforts, there is now an inscribed flagstone commemorating her as one of Scotland's great writers in Makars' Court, Edinburgh, with a quotation from her long poem "Ane Godlie Dreame":

"Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore
Defy them all, and feare not to win out".

It has taken too long for Melville's poetry to "win out" from obscurity, but now that we have it in an accessible volume, it's well worth getting to know.
Sheenagh Pugh
24 February 2015 @ 02:19 pm
Barbara Marsh is a poet and singer-songwriter who was born in Rhode Island and now lives and teaches in London. Her first collection, To the Boneyard, was published by Eyewear in 2013.


Six years old in the back of a blue station wagon:
Holiday Inn. Esso. Walk a Mile for a Camel.
Burma-Shave. Home of Yellowstone
Up front, maps full of words.

Curvy red and blue lines
led to cities – words first, then boulevards
and buildings. Later, I’d memorise white shapes
on green rectangles: Sleepy Hollow Road, Runnell Avenue,

Iroquois Point
. Sing them like nursery rhymes
as my feet went round on the pedals. You taught me
to search for the perfect word,
that Q was useless without U.

I remember white-dotted avenues
on the table, the domino pile on the edge,
your voice singing To the boneyard
you must go
, disembodied as any ghost.

Now you say That’s a good word. Then
repeat it. As if you’ve never heard it. Now
we drive down roads I don’t recognise.

SHEENAGH: I know you relocated a lot as a child, due to your father's navy job. How did you react to this? Some children react by not putting down such deep roots outside the family, consciously or unconsciously not getting as attached to places or friends as they otherwise might; some become hoarders of memories or get very good at maintaining relationships at a distance via letters or phone. And some become very acute, analytical observers, always comparing the now with the then, the here with elsewhere. Did this background make it easier for you to fit in when you changed countries and what impact would you say it's had on your writing?

BARBARA: That's a good question - I think I reacted well while it was happening - I knew I had no choice, so I accepted it, was the usual resilient kid - but it wasn't easy, having to settle in a new place and make new friends every couple of years. And then I often went to more than one school in those two years, if we'd arrived on the cusp - the last year in primary school, for example, so friends I'd made the previous school year I wouldn't then be in school with in the next place, if you see what I mean. I’d been in 10 schools by the time I was 14. I was definitely a bit of a hoarder - I'd save all kinds of things: matchbooks, restaurant napkins, tickets, birthday cards, the little plastic mermaids that hang on a cocktail glass (or monkeys or whatever – my dad knew I liked them and brought them home) - so many things had meaning; these were things I could hold on to, I guess, unlike the places we lived and the friends I'd left behind. I always felt insecure and clumsy (I was also always growing, always taller than everyone in my class, so I really was quite a klutz). In fact, the only times I felt secure were when I was writing or playing/performing music or acting. Normal social interactions were hard - I was so painfully self-conscious, with the insecurity complex that can travel with that. And terrified of people in authority, of men, of being myself, having my own opinions around them (I think 'Serial' touches on that a good deal). And although I always intended to stay in touch with the friends I'd left, it never happened - I'd be in touch for a short period and then stop. I don't know why - maybe I never trusted that any relationship could withstand the imposed distance. The people stayed in my memory, but I was unable to find any of them (or them to find me) for years until recently, through Facebook and Many of the people I thought I’d never lose touch with I have been unable to find.

I have the geography of some of the places I lived in my bones – I dream of the houses from Hawaii, Mississippi, Virginia, Florida. I have a physical ache for some places I’ve lived. When I got older, I never expected any intimate relationship to last – and I never felt settled anywhere. In fact, it wasn't until relatively recently that I felt settled at all – we moved house last October, and had lived there – the house in Hackney – for 8 and a half years, the longest I have ever lived anywhere since I was born. It was such a wrench to leave. I think I always feel like a bit of a foreigner anyway, everywhere – because I am one! But I felt that in the US as well (I’ve been in the UK for 30 years now, nearly all my adult life) – never felt settled, in my home, in myself... I think it's all linked back to moving so much as a kid, but I felt that I was different from other Americans – like I didn't really belong there. I feel more like I belong here; though I’m not sure why, I think I always have – even with the obvious differences (and may I just say how tired I am of hearing 'You haven't lost your accent!'?). Did it make it easier to fit in? I don't think so – it was really tough when I moved here; my mother had just died, my marriage (to the Brit I moved here with) was a disaster – I ended up in a psychiatric ward for seven weeks a year and a half later – though I think that had more to do with early childhood trauma than anything else. I realised I'd suffered from depression since I was really small – and that may well have to do with the extreme un/up/rooted-ness of my earliest life; who knows? I wrote a lot as a kid – poems and stories – I spent long periods inside myself, whether I was in or outside my house; I'd go for long, long walks with my dog, playing a big dramatic scenario for hours – all in my head. From the age of 12, I also spent days on the guitar, shut in my room, obsessed – so the writing and music became fused and I began writing songs when I was 13. I think the constant moving, constantly questioning myself and my worth had a huge impact on my writing – it was the only acceptable place to explore the themes of misplacement or displacement; I didn't happily talk about it because I didn't understand at the time that that's what I was exploring. Even now, I find the themes of rootlessness – and that feeling of being 'other' and the odd one out – barge into my poems all the time, but I don't realise that's what I'm exploring until someone points it out to me – but it's inescapable, I think! I also lost my mother when I was 25, and that further excluded me – or that's how it felt at the time. You can see how much I've explored my parents' deaths in the poems – there was so much unsaid: my mother, because she died so young; my father, because he could be a difficult man and found it hard to be emotionally open, and by the time I could talk to him as an adult, he was lost to dementia.

It's interesting that you say some people find they compare the now with the then, the here with elsewhere – I think I do that, too; that may be one of the reasons I don't feel settled, or grounded, a lot of the time. When I am absolutely in the moment – which happens most often in a gig, in the middle of a song, or when I'm doing a reading - I am in heaven, because there's no other place I'm supposed to be, and I am not outside myself, looking at what I'm doing or how I'm behaving (and wondering if that's all okay). I don’t usually remember specific details about it. At its best, it’s entirely non-judgmental and zen-like, but I become very much part of what I'm reading or singing, so quite exposed and vulnerable as a result – sometimes it can feel a little too close to the edge. I've succeeded so far in staying just within the boundary, but I stretch it, take risks that are a bit frightening. I think that's also satisfying because I was expected to behave in a particular way when I was small (to accept all the moving and be a good girl, act ladylike, all that - we were in a military family, and my dad, a high-ranking officer, could be very critical and a little scary; I felt I had to 'be' a certain way – but I was probably too sensitive and self-censoring) – and when I can approach such an emotionally out-there place, it's quite exhilarating.

I think I spend a lot of time observing and thinking, although I don't notice at the time – and then I find I'm writing about these characters who have just decided to walk in onto the page fully formed and I'm not sure where they've come from. I'm having a great time with that at the moment – there's a character who keeps coming into my journal, and I like him a lot. I think I may be getting off the point.

SHEENAGH: "And then I find I'm writing about these characters who have just decided to walk in onto the page fully formed and I'm not sure where they've come from"

Yes, in your collection there are quite a few personae who aren't you. But it can take a while to see that, because you use a lot of first person. Sometimes the "I" in your poems clearly is you, at least in part, indicated by biographical detail, parents etc, so if the reader isn't careful she can find herself assuming every "I" is the writer – and then suddenly it dawns: no, this "I" is an invention… I like that, because it keeps the reader awake. I have interviewed several poets who use first person a lot, and they have various answers to the question "does it worry you if people assume the "I" is always autobiographical?" What would yours be?

BARBARA: I’m so glad you like that. It sometimes worries me that I use first person so much. I’ve tried to change to third many times in particular poems, but sometimes they just won’t have it – and fellow poets, in my workshop, will sometimes say ‘Why isn’t this in first person? It wants to be in first person,’ so I change it back again. It may be that I am more of a first person poet, but I do worry about the self-absorbed image that may engender, despite the poems very often going away from the actual life experience…
However, the current character walking into my poems absolutely comes in third person, and I’m really enjoying that. In answer to the question, it doesn’t really worry me, although I do often tell audiences that it isn’t necessarily me, so they’re on their toes, just to question their assumptions; allow the possibility that my poems are not necessarily my life. Also gives me a little more space, that possibly-not-autobiography stance, which makes the poems that are a bit close to the bone slightly easier to read to an audience! I do tell my students never to assume that the ‘I’ is automatically the autobiographical voice of the poet. In a good number of the poems, although they start from my own experience, they move into their own, so I can’t claim them as fully autobiographical anyway, as they take on their own lives.

SHEENAGH: Going back to these characters who keep walking into your work, this sounds like how a novel or a play might develop. Do you think you might branch out into other genres this way?

BARBARA: I would love to branch out. I am writing some short stories now – though they are very short. But they’re definitely stories, and written from one character voice or another wandering into my journal. I also have a few monologues that have simply ‘occurred’ and I’d like to find homes for them. I’d very much like to write a longer piece – especially a play, I think – or maybe a novel, though that seems somehow more daunting. The desire is there – but how on earth can I fill so many pages? Long poems don’t even happen very often for me; "Opal" is my longest poem so far – it’s rare that I write a poem that goes beyond one page (although there are a few two-pagers). The trick would be to keep the idea going far enough to write the longer work. But it is certainly something I’d like to try.

SHEENAGH: You are both a poet and a songwriter. Paul Henry, whom I've interviewed before, is another such. His musician side shows through in his poems in the use of form; he writes a lot of half-rhyme and a lot of form poems, including rondeaux and sestinas. You don't use rhyme or form much; when you do it tends to be looser, like unrhymed sonnets, and though your poems are musical, the rhythms are those of free verse. Do you always know when something's going to turn out to be a poem or a song, and is the process of writing them very different? Do they cross-fertilise at all?

BARBARA: I know; it’s funny, isn’t it? I’ve always tended towards free verse in poetry, though musicality has been a part of me since I was about 3 or 4 – both parents were musical, my uncle was a jazz musician, my aunt a concert grade pianist; I was singing or humming Harry Belafonte’s Calypso, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and John Philip Sousa marches since well before I could read. The song lyrics are formal (although they can be pretty loose at times). In poems, I do sometimes use half-rhyme, although it may be less obvious than half – is there such a thing as quarter-rhyme? But I think it more often presents itself, rather than me being deliberate in the choice of rhyme (the deliberate internal and end para-rhymes and end half-rhymes in "Beck and call", for example). I’d like to write more formal poems – more sestinas ("Dry" is the only one so far) and a sonnet corona, for starters, but the other poems march in and I have such limited time these days to write so lack the concentrated time these forms would require. I’m trying to put together a project at the moment, which will need funding, and I’d be aiming at a section of the poems to have some kind of strict form. I think there’s a fair bit of internal rhyme and assonance in many of the current poems, but again, they are not necessarily planned as such. In revision, I tend to locate them and hitch the lines to the inherent rhythm, and consider the musicality that’s been set up, how to echo or enhance the word combinations (and ideas). There is often a loose pentameter to the lines, which sometimes assists me in making line-ending decisions.

SHEENAGH: "there’s a fair bit of internal rhyme and assonance in many of the current poems, but again, they are not necessarily planned as such. In revision, I tend to locate them and […] consider the musicality that’s been set up"

Ah, that answers a question I was going to ask! That would be how, for instance, the sound-patterns in the first verse of "Greyhound" came about: There are consonanatal or vowel repetitions like the K of ankles-clicks-cheek-truck and the long O of Wyoming-swollen-window-snow-road, but also more complicated and interlacing ones – the long E of "cheek" leads on to "sleep", but the P of "sleep" then leads to the echo with "stop"". This is what happens when one revises with sound in mind, right?

BARBARA: Oh dear! I think it may be more accidental than that, but it’s probably accurate. I often don’t have a conscious musical brain looking over the work; I think I work more intuitively than that when it comes to writing and revision, probably because music has been such a huge part of my world – I was singing, playing and writing songs from such an early age – poems, too, though they were (as I think I’ve already said) often more like song lyrics; in any case, the sounds of the words, the musicality and how the sounds fit together – these must have been the deciding factors. So that has spilled over into my revisions, most definitely. But often many of the sounds occur in the first draft, setting up patterns, most likely, that I take note of somewhere in my brain, to enable me to ‘revise with sound in mind’, as you say (the more I think of that, the more apt it is). Those sound patterns in "Greyhound", for example – I’ve just had a look at the earliest draft, and what happened is that, in revision, I took out lines to allow the sounds that were already working to take the lead and I did change words and lines to allow the musicality to come through. How much of this was actually on purpose and how much just trimming/editing/changing until it ‘felt right’, I’m not sure. I’m not sure how conscious that process was.

When I’m writing, do I know if it’s a poem or a song lyric? Generally, I’d say yes. The poems tend to be more of an experimental exploration, less formal, as you’ve noticed. They rarely know where they are going until they get there (and even then, it can be questionable). The song lyrics tend to be immediately more formal; usually – though not always – the line endings rhyme. They often come out in big chunks, sometimes with an accompanying melody, usually with a strong rhythm in mind. They do tell a story, most often, though the narrative often shifts during the writing. Actually, whether a song or a poem, I never know how it will end up.

The thing with poems and song lyrics, I think, is that poems contain their own music, whereas song lyrics need the external music to attach to in order to work fully. The words in songs have to be singable – they need the vowels to move the lines (forget words like mythological); in poems, the words have to speak well – sometimes they can do both. Poems tend to take more leaps; song lyrics can be a little more linear. Some songwriters’ lyrics can work as poems, but I think that’s the exception, rather than the rule. They can of course cross-fertilise (what a great way to put it) – and that’s a treat when it happens to pull them both together – it becomes a kind of song-with-spoken-word and is experimental and quite thrilling. And of course, sometimes, a lone line comes up and I think it’s part of a poem, and it wants to be part of a song instead or a stanza wants to be a song verse. Does that make sense?

SHEENAGH: Further to that, one wouldn't perhaps guess that a musician-poet would be so keen on prose poems! What led you to this form; are there any particular models that were important? And again, how do you decide when a poem wants to be in that quite specialised format?

BARBARA: Charles Simic’s poems opened my eyes fairly wide; I was introduced to his work by Chris Whitley, an American musician/singer/songwriter. I wish I could remember the specific poem – Chris had it framed; Simic had signed a torn-out page of poetry. This particular one was a lineated poem. Anyway, when I read it, all kinds of things began connecting in my head and I started writing very differently; it was a ‘light went on’ moment. I was just starting to write poetry seriously – by which time I mean the poems were not just non-rhyming verses for songs! – and I began seeing and taking the leaps in poems that I couldn’t/didn’t in songs. I bought Simic’s books and read them, not understanding some of them, not caring because I liked the way the words went together so much. The World Doesn’t End, Simic’s Pulitzer-winning collection of non-titled prose poems, knocked me out – I loved the surreality and absurdity of some of the poems and the clarity and specificity of his imagery. There’s one poem – this one not humorous, really bleak – that I use in my classes and it keeps renewing itself:

The old farmer in overalls hanging from a barn beam. The cows looking sideways. The old woman kneeling under his swaying feet in her Sunday black dress and touching the ground with her forehead like a Mohammedan. Outside the sky is full of sudsy clouds above an endless plowed field with no other landmarks in view.

The poem – its concrete images, its present continuous tense of the verbal phrases, the fact that there is only one full sentence in the poem (with is as the verb, when so much of the poem is about what isn’t) – would lose its drive, be less effective if it were lineated. This, for me, is essential for the prose poem – its defiance of form and the fact that it would be a lesser poem if it had set line endings.

I read prose poems quite a while before I began to write them. I think it was a workshop on prose poetry with Carrie Etter that opened the window on my own writing – "The straw" (eventually) came out of an exercise from the workshop and I began writing prose poems more frequently after that. In deciding on format, the prose poem works for me when the poem – which tends to look at one thing; it’s quite concentrated – insists on driving its way through, without consideration for line endings that would add or subtract anything to or from the poem. The imagery kind of has this insistence about it and doesn’t want the eye to linger on a word or image at the end of a line (save the analysis for later). I usually try to lineate prose poems at first, when I’m not sure where/how it wants to sit on the page, but stanza breaks/ line endings / subtext are never satisfying – the poem seems to have, as I mentioned, a kind of insistence – I’m not sure there’s another way to put that. It is happy enough to be put in a box (in fact, it really needs this kind of enclosing) but doesn’t want any definition within the box. That’s my take on it, anyway. I think.

SHEENAGH: Ah, workshops…. I struggle to understand the lofty dismissal of these in some quarters – "sounds like a workshop exercise" is enough to damn any poem for some people. If this just meant the scaffolding of a poem was too obvious, then maybe, but I suspect it actually harks back to a Romantic delusion that poems ought to spring fully formed from "inspiration". What part do workshops play in your writing process; how do you use them? Do they have a parallel in the music world?

BARBARA: Hmm – lucky people who have their poems spring up fully formed! (And SO many beginning poets/students think the poem that first appears on the page is actually the poem…) I love workshops, and workshop exercises. I see them as fantastic learning and writing tools. Very occasionally, I write from an entirely blank page, but not often. I used to go to workshops regularly. Now I teach a lot and I don’t have time (or money, strangely enough, though I am working more…) to attend extra writing workshops – plus, now I want to go to workshops that will really stretch me, and those are harder to find – and it’s difficult to attend with my current time commitments. What I do do, when I can, is to do a writing exercise along with the class – this has brought about a number of poems. I love the way a writing exercise allows raw material to pour out onto the page while I watch – usually it will surprise me; more often than not, it will lead to a poem if it hasn’t already begun. There are a some exercises I give my students that I still use on my own – the helpful thing about exercises is that they often tend to work on all levels, at least, that’s been my experience. I collect books by poets and writers about writing (I’m really enjoying Kim Addonizio’s books), to give me ideas for exercises and teaching and I often find them useful for my own writing. I go to a peer poetry workshop every week – we don’t do exercises, but we close-read published work and workshop our own poems; it keeps me motivated and moving my work on, even if I don’t bring a poem in. Most of us have been in the group for years. I think I’d really miss it if I didn’t have it.

In the music world, I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent. In The Dear Janes, I collaborated with another singer/songwriter/musician in London for twelve yeras, and we did a lot of batting ideas around, which was a really stimulating way to work. In New York, I was part of the folk music circuit, and we’d all listen to (and support – or seethe with envy over) our peer singer/songwriters. Sometimes we’d play and sing together; it was like a collective. I learned a lot about songwriting. Suzanne Vega was there at the time, and Jack Hardy, Frank Christian, Dave Van Ronk... so many musicians and really good writers. Shawn Colvin was around, too, though not such a regular as Vega. It was a real community, extremely helpful in learning the craft. It could also get quite snarky and competitive (similar to some poetry circuits). I guess I still collaborate – I’m lucky to live with an extraordinary musician (and a fantastic poem editor, though not a poet!) and we have a lot of respect and admiration for each other’s work.

SHEENAGH: I'm interested also in the models/motivation for what one might call your word-game poems - ones like "Definite article" and "Beck and call". The latter, in fact, does use a sort of formal device; a repeated consonant that seems to very much dictate the word choice and drive the narrative. What particular buzz does this kind of writing give you?

BARBARA: I think the buzz is in the energy of the unexpectedness of those poems – I remember, with "Definite article", listing and listing these things I thought my father must have been going through – he had Alzheimer’s – before his death. It was the energy that eventually carried it along, and the rhythm of that – those were the deciders in the editing – how the body just keeps going along, despite the loss of mental function and the heart pumps and the blood flows – until it doesn’t. For me, it’s an incredibly emotional poem, but the list form of the poem and the energy from that form push/es it forward and allows the thing itself to happen, so the thinking about what IS happening/the emotion of the piece gets put off until after the poem is read. That’s the result, for me – it wasn’t written with that in mind, that separation of thing and emotion, but that ended up being how the poem wanted to go, while echoing the steady loss of function of the body/brain. I hope this doesn’t sound pompous! I’ve never really thought about the why/how of the poem in such detail before.

With "Beck and call", it was Don Paterson who suggested – when I told him, during a week-long workshop in Spain, that I was a bit stuck – that I try para-rhymes, which he defined as the repetition of the first and last sounds of the chosen word (or syllable) – the words can be lengthened but the beginning and ending sounds have to be the same, the vowels within the word section varying; e.g. buck, beck, back, Buick, Bucky’s, Quebec, tobacco, humbucker, Rebecca, etc. I chose Beck, decided to use one in every line and the first line came, then another and another, and it was like a game (as was the sestina for me). It also has regular line-end half-rhymes, though these are not so obvious. That poem was hugely enjoyable to write – the narrative (and the poem) was discovered entirely through the rhyme – and the rhythm. That was one of the things I learned from Don – using rhyme can really carry or lead the writing of the whole thing. In the case of "Beck" and the sestina ("Dry"), lines were often a real surprise, driven by the para-rhyme or the end word – and I followed the poem, as opposed to reaching for lines to go into the poem. Coincidentally, in songwriting it’s, more often than not, been that way for me – sometimes I’ve used a rhyming dictionary (Sammy Cahn’s Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary is brilliant) and come across a word I liked and it’s changed the course of the verse – or the whole song.

SHEENAGH: One more question – where do you see your work going next?

BARBARA: Where do I see the poems going next? At the moment, there are about 30 or more with the same character - these are a real step away from To the Boneyard - and I'd like to continue to follow these and work on them and see where they take me. I'm hoping they'll be a longish pamphlet first - although there may be enough pages for a collection on its own soon - not sure about the wisdom of a collection with the same character throughout. (And of course, I need a publisher!) The poems are all in 3rd person and concern Mr Ferndean, a male middle-aged character, single, post-retirement (turns out he was a pharmacist). He's quite well educated, a bit awkward, easily embarrassed, animal lover - owner of a golden retriever, white-and-black cat and a parrot (who occaisionally drops sunflower kernels into the dog's ear when the dog is asleep, if his ear falls into a folded-back position); is smitten with a local woman who has no idea (and would probably be quite shocked) and bicycles around his small town. He's not all sun and light - he does have a temper as well. He also has a somewhat ornery, semi-foul-mouthed, outspoken friend who comes into a few of the poems. And his mother is 93 and getting a bit frail, so there are issues around that as well. I am very fond of him - it's a very different writing experience for me; he walked onto a page one day and hasn't really stopped, although he's slowed down a bit - he generally shows up during longer holiday periods when there's time to concentrate on new poems - sometimes during term-time, too, but there's less brain-space, so not as often. Does this sound completely crazy?

Beyond the Mr F poems, I'm considering looking at more formal sequences, though free verse poems keep popping up. For that, I'll need much more concentrated time, so it may be a slow start. And in terms of subject matter, I keep thinking I'm finished with the parent poems, but we'll see. My observations are, of course, shifting as I get older and I'm becoming more and more interested in two areas: examining my relationship to the natural world, primarily the ocean(s), but from a more ecopoetical stance, attempting to blur that line between observer and observed, to see how far I can push the subjective/objective points of view.

I'm also feeling the itch to visit and write about places I have links to but have little or no memory of - places I lived when I was very small and places that were instrumental in shaping my world view and the directions my life has taken - places I have never re-visited. I'd like to record the experience in a kind of once-removed stance, so it's not necessarily me as the narrator; I'm not sure - it's really early stages. I was born in Rhode Island, but we left when I was 10 months old and I've never been back. It's another link to the open water, RI being on the east coast. I'm really eager to explore the easternmost point in the US, where we lived after RI for 2 years - Lubec, Maine (pop.1,359 in 2010) - across a bridge to New Brunswick, full of amazing language and landscape - Quoddy Narrows, Passamaquoddy Bay, Moose Island, Campobello Island... At the moment it's minus 16 degrees Centigrade in Lubec, so very different from anything I've known since! And then there's Hawaii, where we lived twice, which I feel a real pull to explore; my family's life changed so very much during that time and my own development was, I think, fixed during those years. In fact, these places are, significantly, all on the water, so I may be looking at a project where I am and am not present at different times (as the subjective narrator), combining the ideas of stance.

I'm also warming to the idea of writing a play, or at least a full-length monologue. My background is in theatre as well as music, so the theoretical idea of a one-woman play has been swimming around my head for a while. God knows when - I need to loosen up some time and get some funding!


On the flight home together, he was quiet,
already absent, editing her out of the tales
he would relate to his wife.

That reckless summer, he could make no other choice
and she was blind beyond the holiday,
her life contained in its two weeks.

They'd found a beach, inaccessible by land,
made love against their rented boat, she
doubled over the bow. They dared anyone to discover them.

At night, shooting stars competed with the thickness of cicadas
and wet slaps against the docks
where fishermen beat the octopuses.

They drank Ouzo out of plastic cups, ate tomatoes and sardines.
She swam every Ionian cove they could find,
back and forth its entire width,

and again the next day, to make it more real.
Each bay disappeared
as soon as they mounted the hill to the road.

During supper at the taverna, she fed kalamari
to the feral cats under the table. She could feel
the prickle of fleas on her skin.

They shot whiskey in Harry's Bar, clambered up terraces
of olive groves, sailed into Fiscardo.
On their first holiday, the world was ancient.

Definite article

The pencil the paper the lines the forearm
the hand the fingers the knuckles the tendons
the bones the muscles the compulsion the lessons
the handwriting paper the graphite on off-white
the spaces the spaces between the letters
the words the lines between the pages
the synapses the oxygen the cut-off point
the freeze the fear the distraction the memory
the grief of others the lack of function
the lack of care the brain shutting down
the loss of the mind's eye the lapse of the tongue
the who the why the where the when
the loss of control of movement of cause
the loss of effect the dark the light
the flicker the shadow the eyelids the cheekbones
the fall of the chest the heartbeat the drift
the outbreath the stillness the stillness the

Pensacola Beach Bridge

I would cross it each new summer, a toll bridge
with a hill in the middle to let boats through,
the dolphin sign a carnival pointing the way.

I'd throw coins in the basket, hear the rattle and ding!
before the striped arm went up.
The old bridge sat alongside, its draw removed.
Fishermen lined its rails, gulls dived for scraps.

Everything eased, like my brown legs into sand.
Hard bodies, new drugs, I crossed over to them
with the songs on the radio – Take Me to the River,
What a Fool Believes, How Do I Survive.

Last September, a storm with a boy’s name
destroyed it. Photographs show great chunks gnashed away
en route to the remnants of Oriole Beach, Palafox Street.

The birds calling over Pensacola Sound don’t know
how the seasons rush, single days like the fish
they swoop down upon.

Perhaps there’s no bridge to anywhere we’ve been.
All those stars we see that no longer exist.
In the blaze of the September sun, the glints
on the still water under what remains.

Barbara Marsh's website is due an update soon, but meanwhile her Facebook page is here
To the Boneyard can be bought from Eyewear Publishing and there's a review here
Sheenagh Pugh
16 February 2015 @ 10:40 am
... to adapt a quote from Chaucer, between "censoring" something and "not providing a platform" for it, which is why this Guardian headline is inaccurate and mischief-making. The article complains of "a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed 'transphobic'". It cites the fact that Julie Bindel (whose views no one needs to "deem" transphobic, because her rabid hatred shines through them) "has been “no-platformed” by the National Union of Students for several years."

Well now, I have never been invited to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, but that is hardly censorship, just them choosing what kind of speaker they want to host. If you object "yes, but that isn't a blanket ban, such as the NUS has put on Bindel", I will counter that I'm pretty sure there are indeed some writers who would be dismissed out of hand by many a festival, either because their quality is deemed too low or because they write in a genre or style that does not appeal to that festival's audience (not every audience can take the f-word every second sentence). That still isn't censorship.

In fact the things which are not censorship, but are often called so, is a long one. If I write a letter to a newspaper and they choose not to publish it, that is not censorship. If I delete a comment by someone else on my blog or Facebook page because I don't like the tone, that is not censorship. If a publisher turns down a writer's work, that is not censorship. I have seen them all called so, but in no case is the writer being told he can't publish his views; he is just being told to go and publish them elsewhere. If he publishes them on his own blog and the government closes it down, or via his own press and the copies are seized and burned, or sets up a meeting which is raided by the authorities, THAT is censorship (which may or may not be justified depending on whether or not he is inciting folk to violence or libelling someone).

If a lawful meeting is broken up by protesters, that too would be censorship, and also illegal. But what if it is merely howled down by them? Well, they have a right to express their views, too. In a democracy I would prefer they listened to their opponents and then argued with them, but we can't have it both ways: if one person has a right to express a view, another has a right to express his annoyance at it. And a venue that doesn't wish to see such scenes, or give a platform to particular views, has a right not to host them in the first place. I daresay the Women's Institute "no-platforms" a great many potential speakers who are not to their taste, and why should they not? One would hope a university would be generally receptive to debate, but again if they choose not to provide space for all and sundry to say what they please, that is not censorship.

What's odd about this debate is that never in human history has it been harder to "silence" someone in the way the signatories of this letter claim to have been silenced. Every Tom, Dick and Harry has a website and as long as they stay within the law they can put what they like on it. Google any of these signatories - Campbell, for example - and far from silence you will find them and their views ubiquitous. It seems, therefore, a trifle disingenuous, and over-wrought, to claim they have been silenced simply by being denied a particular platform.

But I'm not that surprised, because I recall the kerfuffle years ago among Ioan Gruffudd's online fans... For anyone whom it passed by, there was a tribute site, set up and run by his fans, which he funded. All was sweetness and light, until he got engaged, and catty remarks about his fiancee started appearing on its forums. He remonstrated about this, to no effect, and then did what he had warned he would do, and what any man would have done in the circumstances: he stopped financing the site. He didn't prevent anyone else doing so, nor try to get it taken down; he simply didn't see why he should personally facilitate and fund people who wanted to insult his future wife. Believe it or not, there were immediate cries of "censorship!" I thought at the time that the complainants were a set of nutcases whose unreasonableness could not possibly have a parallel in the world. But there you are, there's always another one...
Sheenagh Pugh

Frank Dullaghan's first collection, On the Back of the Wind, was much concerned with childhood memories and family relationships, which is arguably a theme particularly associated with the Irish poetic tradition from which he comes. At that time, the place where he now lives, Dubai, had not really begun to surface in his writing.

The Same Roads Back marks a definite shift. It does in fact begin with a section of family-memory poems, centred this time around himself and his mother, rather than the father who dominated his first book. Dullaghan always handles this material deftly, unsentimentally and often with a touch of humour (as in his confounding of the policeman in "Border Boy") which serves to individualise them. But because there isn't exactly a shortage of this kind of poem, it is a theme that creates few surprises for the reader. The more the impact, then, when, following this section, we suddenly come on a vein of wayward, surreal imagery in poems like "She Puts On The Dark", "The Fridge Inside Her", "Turning", "A Man Falling":

the pavement slowly
climbing towards his
speeding brain,
each grain of air lost
to him in passing.
As he dips under
the street lamp, his
shadow leaps from him,
its open arms ready
to receive him

And it's almost as if writing this kind of poem then permanently frees something up in him, because when we get on to the next group of poems, set in places like the Emirates, Egypt, Syria and Tripoli, the language and imagery are not just exact but memorable. In "Naming the Stars: Syria 2013" we see

the wall
ripped from a neighbour's house,

the wind reading his books

while in "The Heartache Café"

That old man in the corner is made of glass.
He is cracked from the heart to the head.
If he moves he will shatter, glitter
across the floor like ice.

I found the Arab Spring poems particularly memorable; after all, it isn't a subject many English-language poets have yet written about, let alone from so close to the scene. But it's also interesting to see, for the first time, poems emerging from his work as a financial lawyer (I wonder what it says about poets that it took the world financial crash to make this a subject that inspired him). Poems like "Winter Field" and "The Crash" are hugely unusual in their subject matter; almost no poets write about business, and it's maybe telling that their most memorable moments are the images from other lexical fields in which he expresses the financial crash:

Everyone wants to be paid
but we have no money.
They call me. What can I say?
I see the wedge cut out of the trunk
as I stand in the tree's shadow.
It is tilting towards me.
I hear its pain, can feel
the snap and rip of its fibres
before they explode.

In the collection's final poem, "The Wide Ocean of the Sky", family concerns and the financial crash merge as the poet addresses his wife:

After the violent storm, wreckage floats to the top.
We gather what we can of our financial flotsam,
back in Dubai, starting over: this rented apartment,

the two of us smoothing clean sheets across a bed.
What else do we need but the surprise of each other?
We know about wealth: it grows on the trees.

"Surprise" is a keynote of the language, imagery and themes of this collection. Later in the same poem, speaking of his and his wife's shared future, he says "What an adventure we shall make of it". Judging by what is here, the same may be true of his future writing.
Sheenagh Pugh
05 February 2015 @ 11:34 am
Once upon a time, while teaching on a creative writing course, I nearly did a student a serious injustice. Considering a folder of six pieces of work, I’d marked one low. It had seemed laboured, clichéd and a bit hectoring. Fortunately we always put plentiful comments on our marking to explain why it was as it was, so the student in question was able to realise what I'd missed, point it out and ask for a re-mark.

What I'd missed was, quite simply, that the piece was meant satirically. And you may say she shouldn't have needed to point that out, but she didn't, really. It wasn't brilliantly funny, but its intent should have got through to me. The reason it didn't, of course, was that like all my colleagues I had been marking scripts for hours at the time, my eyes and brain were tired and if A Modest Proposal had appeared in front of me, I might well have supposed Swift to be making a serious point. And no, I shouldn't have been marking while tired, but given the deadlines we were set, it was very hard not to.

This was before double-marking became general, which was supposed to stop this sort of thing happening. I'm not sure it would, though, not only because two people could easily enough be marking in a jaded condition, but also because, I suspect, humour is the easiest thing to miss, particularly in poetry. Not only is it very much a matter of personal taste, a lot of people, critical readers especially, don't seem ever to expect or welcome frivolity or levity in poems, nor to see how humour can be used to leaven a "serious" theme in poetry just as it can in prose. There are a few poets from whom we expect it, because they've developed a reputation for it, but very often they are denigrated, classed as "versifiers" even, by the same kind of people who think tragedy must inherently be more serious and important than comedy.

At least, though, readers recognise what these poets are trying to do. In a worse position, arguably, are poets who don't have this reputation but just want to use humour once in a while, as another tool in the box. If it's searing irony or satire, they'll probably be OK (though of course Defoe ended up in the pillory when The Shortest Way With Dissenters was taken in deadly earnest, and I have seen students assume the same of A Modest Proposal). But more gentle frivolity, oddly enough, can be far more dangerous, maybe not to the poet's personal safety, since pillories fell out of fashion, but certainly to the poet's critical reputation; he or she may be seen as insufficiently serious or committed. I don't know why there should be this notion that humour undermines serious intent; maybe nobody nowadays reads any Aristophanes. But certainly many poetry reviewers these days seem immune to it, and it isn't, I think just a matter of finding it badly handled (which humour often can be); it's rather that they are dismissive and mistrustful of it as a technique. I recall a number of reviews over the last few years that seem to be complaining of anything less than deadly seriousness and attention to "issues" in the poets concerned (I could give examples, but then I'd have to name individual poets and reviewers, which is known in these parts as "putting your heid in a bees' byke").

It's long been known that humour online is hard to communicate, since we have neither tone of voice nor body language to guide us, which is why some folk have suggested, both seriously and in jest, creating a new Irony Font or Irony Icons. But I think it can be equally dodgy between the covers of a book of poetry, simply because many are not expecting to meet it there. Maybe this is finally something back-cover blurbs are good for – nobody really reads or takes note of them except the lazier kind of reviewer who wants to be told what to think, but perhaps if they carried instructions like "Every word is not necessarily to be taken in dead earnest"?

There is also a quote from Ernest Hemingway: "A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl."
Sheenagh Pugh
door in moon

If you're reading this, you've probably already read the first two books in the Chronoptika series, The Obsidian Mirror and The Box of Red Brocade (see links for reviews). Briefly however, for anyone who's not caught up: there is a house called Wintercombe Abbey, in a wood populated by the beautiful but dangerously non-human Shee. The house contains an obsidian mirror, which is a time portal, and a number of ill-assorted persons, not all human and not all from the same time, who have conflicting designs on the mirror. Sarah, from the future, wants to destroy it, having seen what harm it will do there. Venn and Jake want to preserve and use it to rescue loved ones dead or trapped in the past. Maskelyne wants it for purposes unspecified but probably to do with power. Others in the house are uncommitted.

The first book was set in winter, the second in spring, and in the third we have arrived at Midsummer Eve. Those who've read them will recall also that the first, which was much concerned with Jake and his missing father, was haunted by quotes from, and references to, Hamlet, while the second, in which the corruption of power emerged more strongly, was similarly haunted by Macbeth. But behind both was another Shakespearean influence plainly lurking, that of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in this volume it comes into its own.

Those who use the mirror are now getting more skilled at it, in particular Moll, the Victorian urchin whom Jake met in vol 1 and who makes a welcome reappearance here. And the fact that they can now do more of what they want means they have to think harder about whether they should. Several of the characters, in this volume, are troubled by conscience and conflicting duties, and those with dual natures, like Venn and Gideon, are faced with choices between them. In this the volume mirrors its Shakespearean inspiration: the Dream is all about choices and loyalties.

As usual, the action moves between different times and locations: the Abbey, the unfathomable Wood that itself contains worlds, and a very believable and exciting Paris at the time of the Terror. And as usual, I read it far too fast because it was so gripping: the lure of "what happens next" was as strong as ever. Now I'm going back to savour the actual writing, in particular the mesmerising evocation of the Shee and their Wood:

The Shee came down round him in clouds. He watched how some of them stayed butterflies and how others transformed, wholly or in part, to the pale tall people he had seen before, their clothes now brilliant scarlets and turquoises and oranges. With soft rustles and crackles their bodies unfolded. Abdomen and antennae became skin and smile.

Quite apart from being invested in the characters and what happens to them – Gideon, in some danger at the end of the volume, Wharton, looking more and more like the representative of human decency, the irrepressible Moll - the vividly described locations make this perhaps Fisher's most gripping project for some time. Only one to go now, and it's beginning to sound as if that one will have to travel, at least for part of the time, into the far future from which Sarah comes and which we haven't yet seen first-hand. Can't wait.
Sheenagh Pugh
I got this book for Christmas. I'd read a post about the author on FB and thought she sounded like my kind of short story writer (and I'm fussy; an awful lot of lauded C20 writers in that form do nothing for me, probably because I keep thinking "well s/he's all right but s/he isn't Chekhov"). Ismat Chughtai (b.1915) was from northern India, a member of the Progressive Writers Movement and her writing, which centres on family life generally seen from a female perspective, is observational, lyrical, angry, comic and pretty much never dull. She conveys a society on the one hand almost broken with corruption, unfairness, outdated customs and at the same time exuberant and multifarious. Weirdly the title story, one of her most famous because it led to a ridiculous obscenity charge, is the least impressive; she was young at the time and couldn't quite handle the unaware narrator. Much more memorable is "A Pair of Hands" in which the wife of a poor man (a sweeper of refuse, away in the army), gives birth to a son who, given the dates, can't possibly he his. The master and mistress of the rich household in which the couple are employed are baffled by the servants' reaction: the erring wife's mother-in-law, though she knows perfectly well that the child can't be her son's, is delighted with it and the husband, when he comes home, reacts the same way, as if he doesn't understand the truth. In the end the master (who is the narrator's father) tries to explain:

"But the boy is not yours, Ram Autar - it's that bastard Ram Rati's" Abba exclaimed in exasperation.
"So what is the difference, sir? Ram Rati is my cousin, his blood is the same as mine."
"You're a stupid fool!" Abba was losing patience.
"Sir, when the child grows up he will help out," Ram Autar tried to explain in a pleading tone. He will contribute his two hands, sir, and he will be my support in my old age". Ram Autar lowered his head with these words.

And who knows why, Abba's head, like Ram Autar's was also lowered, as if thousands of hands were bearing down on it... these hands were neither legitimate nor illegitimate, they were only hands, living hands that wash away the filth from the face of this planet, that carry the weight of its aging.

Ram Autar's attitude is coloured by poverty; with no security for the future except the work of his own hands, he can't afford to be too fussy about where a priceless asset like a healthy son came from. But he, who is thought to be dull-witted, has come closer to appreciating what really matters than his educated employer. In the same way, the young couple in "Sacred Duty" see past the prejudices of their parents and treat them with the disdain they deserve. Chughtai never minimises the problems in her society and the pain they cause, especially to women, and some of the stories end grimly but there is a tremendous life-force in her writing that often ends up triumphing over what would suppress it.
Sheenagh Pugh
13 January 2015 @ 09:09 am
So... what happened in the first place was that the fine poet David Harsent won the T S Eliot Prize yesterday. And another poet mentioned on Twitter that Harsent, if you please, used to write for The Bill, which I hadn't known! One thing led to another and said poet wondered on Twitter whether there was any "contemporary poetry fan fiction".

My first reaction was that, per se, this wouldn't happen because fan fiction centres on fictional characters and narratives, and contemporary poetry, mostly, doesn't; it tends to be ideas-focused. Poets themselves could be the focus of Real Person Fic (RPF) and there was, as I recall, a limited amount of Ted & Sylvia stuff, but that centred on their life, not their work - and there are any number of fics that use "Lady Lazarus" as a starting point for writing about fictional characters from other sources who had nothing to do with Plath or the poem, but that's standard practice. Older poets, like Byron, are obvious RPF/RPS candidates, see for instance "For Since Thy Lip Met Mine" by storiesfortravellers. I can imagine that some enterprising soul might have done a spin-off from Rossetti's Goblin Market, but that might just be my odd mind...

There is also, of course, fanfic poetry, and some of it, at least in the Tolkien world, is modelled on his style, which qualifies it as pastiche - and one must never forget the immortal Hamlet fic done in the style of Dr Seuss, Green Eggs and Hamlet.

But fan fiction based on characters from contemporary poetry, as opposed to based on poets, there is none, that I know of. I can't even think of any character in contemporary poetry who could generate it, partly because even if they existed they wouldn't be well enough known to communicate to an audience. The last "character", or more properly narrator, in poetry like that was Hughes's Crow, as far as I know; I can't think of one since.

Nice to know about Harsent's connection to one of fan fiction's most fruitful properties, though. And if anyone here does know of any other connections...
Sheenagh Pugh
29 December 2014 @ 10:55 am
This is the text of my email to various Cardiff councillors, copied to the Western Mail, about the proposed cuts to the city's library service. If anyone's interested, there's a petition at and the email addresses to contact are: (Western Mail), (leader of the council), (deputy) and (libraries portfolio)

Dear Councillors

I am aware that all councils are being starved of cash by central government and therefore cannot provide the level of public service they should and would wish to provide. I have considerable sympathy for the difficult decisions they have to make.

However, it was a wise man who observed that if you think educating people is expensive, you should see what ignorance costs. Giving up another two floors of the central library, losing a great deal of stock in the process, and closing seven branch libraries is no way to maintain Cardiff's status as a cultural capital. It isn't simply a matter of books, vital though those are. The computing facilities are also extremely important to those who cannot afford to be online at home, while the social benefits for older folk of coming together to read newspapers and magazines can actually be a saving in the long run, if it helps them continue in the community.

I am a Welsh writer, publishing with a Welsh house, and, insofar as I identify with any locality, it would be Cardiff, where I wrote most of my books. Though I no longer live in Cardiff, my son's family does (indeed my daughter-in-law is a librarian by training) and I myself lived in Canton for decades. The Carnegie library there was once set on fire by vandals and much stock was lost (by happy chance, Dante's Inferno escaped as I had it out on loan at the time). I published a poem about the incident, hoping the perpetrators would end up in hell, but I didn't realise, at the time, that the council itself might prove the more damaging vandal. As both a Welsh writer and a reader, I would ask you to reconsider whether such sweeping cuts are really unavoidable.
Sheenagh Pugh
21 December 2014 @ 02:17 pm
Metaphors do wear out sometimes, in the sense that the field from which the metaphor is drawn becomes unfamiliar, so that its meaning is no longer clear to those wishing to use it, and when that happens, the metaphor is liable to get changed. This makes sense, when it is changed to something that does carry meaning to the speaker. For instance, I used to know a nice old gentleman to whom old-fashioned bicycles were more familiar than geometry, which was why, when a conversation had strayed from the subject, he was apt to say "I think we've gone off on a tandem". This may, technically, have been incorrect, but it made just as much sense in the context as "gone off at a tangent" (as well as being vastly more original and entertaining). Ditto the fishermen's union spokesman, annoyed at new European quotas, who claimed his members were being treated as political prawns. A small insignificant fish, frequently the prey of larger species, would do just as well as a minor, frequently-sacrificed chess piece to make his point, and better, if he wasn't an habitual chess player.

What's harder to understand is when an idiom gets changed to something that couldn't possibly make any sense to anyone. "Toe the line", meaning to follow orders exactly, is clearly enough visualised in terms of schoolchildren or soldiers standing along a line marked on the floor. Possibly schools don't actually do this any more. But "tow the line", as we often see it written down by students these days, can only mean to haul a rope behind one, and it isn't easy to fathom how they get any relevant meaning out of that.

At least, though, there is a possible meaning. What on earth is in the minds of those who, wishing to say that something is up for debate, say "it's a mute point"? OK, they don't get "moot" because the Anglo-Saxon word for a meeting where you debate things is no longer familiar. But why would a debating point be silent? Then there's the impossible-to-visualise "off his own back" for "off his own bat". Again one can see how, in an era where cricket is less familiar, people might be missing the point that while it takes two players to score a run, it is only credited to the one whose bat it came off - hence, off his own bat: on his own initiative. But what on earth could "off his own back" possibly mean? Changing one idiom, the sense of which one no longer understands, to another that makes no better sense (or even any sense at all) does seem a bit baffling.
Sheenagh Pugh

Some time ago, I reviewed Sue Rose's chapbook Heart Archives, published by Hercules Editions. It was then a sequence of 14 sonnets, inspired by Boltanski’s Les Archives du Coeur, a long-term project to record heartbeats and store them on a Japanese island. The sonnets were each accompanied by a photo of something meaningful to Rose, taken with an iPhone, her own archival device - a multi-media project, then.

Now the sequence, expanded to 21 poems, has become part of a full-length collection, The Cost of Keys, Rose's second from Cinnamon. (Her first, From The Dark Room, was reviewed here.) Here the poems must stand alone, without the photographs, which they do perfectly well, though the reading experience is obviously different - less immediate, wore worked-for.

Heart Archives ends a collection which moves seamlessly through various themes and images. The "keys" of the title poem, which are door keys, morph in the next poem into piano keys, which in turn lead on to other musical instruments in the succeeding poems. Other leitmotifs develop and run through the book: water in various forms, photography, islands, above all, memories and archives. What is it, by the way, with keys in titles all of a sudden? Jean Sprackland's Sleeping Keys, Marianne Burton's She Inserts The Key, now this?

The description of that title-poem key:
Like a flag cast in iron, a stiff wind
caught in its holes and grooves

sets a tone for the collection: an exact, unexpected image that gives an immediate sensory impression. This happens again and again, making for a very visual, tactile read - the image of Murano glass "like bonbons, poisonous with sugar" not only comes alive off the page but, as an effective image should, slants our vision of the object. Another constant tactic is the merging of present with past and future, and this is very skilfully done indeed. At the beginning of "Guided Tour", we could be in the ruins of Pompeii or Herculaneum; by the second verse, doubt creeps in and by the third we know we are looking back from the far future at our own time or something very near it. Later we shall meet "Herculaneum" as a poem title, plus "Time Capsule", and both hint back at this poem. And in "Time Lapse", the year's exposure of a Toronto skyline recorded with a pinhole camera and
for eternity in the ether
while being erased
forever by the hot glare
of a scanner
transports us straight back to Herculaneum. By the end, we have a very strong sense of continuity, of the strands of blood, history, cultural imagery that bind our present to the past and will bind our future to our present.

The verbal skill throughout this collection, in fact, is impressive. She's also quite brave, using words like "palimpsest" and "cadences" that some critic will surely object to as "too poetic". Well, prove they don't work in the context, say I, and the only time I did think something could have been said in a fresher way was the "snowfield" bedsheet and "ice" heart of "Lacrimoso".

There is a lot of bearing witness in this collection, and many people who aren't alive any more. Yet I would not call it nostalgic; what is gone is not idealised and the poet's insistence on memory comes with the consciousness that nothing remembered can wholly die and that there is no need to "escape" to the past, because it is part of the present. The final poem of the chapbook "Heart Archives" is still the poem with which she chooses to sign off both that sequence and this collection: "D25072049", in which she recognises that our immortality lies in human memory:
The vessel for my remains
will be those who carry part of me
in their histories.
The down-to-earth tone there is typical: as in her first collection, this is a poet who can use deeply personal, emotive material and still avoid sentimentality or self-pity.