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Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Vanitas by Ann Drysdale, pub. Shoestring Press 2019


I watch you go, as all have gone before,
lurching from accident to consequence.

This is a collection that is upfront about where its poetry comes from. A long life of wide reading is one source. The title of the first poem, UPON FIRST LOOKING INTO A GIDEON BIBLE, invites an overt comparison with Keats's breathless mind-travelling through Homer. But the travellers the hotel bible addresses, who "measure out your lives in rented rooms", are on no such epic journey. What the book might have to say to them is irrelevant, since they are unlikely to take it out of the drawer; it becomes, instead, a rather ironic symbol of permanence in their transient world:

     that you are simply a coincidence.
     I am a constant, a sad paradigm
     for shrinking distance and compressing time.

This is an unusually overt literary reference, most of them are more embedded, the natural consequence of wide reading. This gives the poems a deep hinterland, as when in "Just Desserts", a poem in which cooking and eating are used to exorcise the ghosts of past relationships, the casual phrase "The crimson currant merges with the white" distantly echoes a Tennysonian love poem.

Many are rooted too in real land, the rural setting in which the poet practised shepherding. In "The Lyke-Wake Talk", an imagined funeral, a life is distilled to, and recalled by, various places that were focal points in it, in a way reminiscent of how the custom of beating the bounds was meant to fix a local landscape in people's minds.

One of the most notable features of this collection is its wide verbal register, all the way from the formality of the opening poem through to dogspeak (think Les Murray and cows) in the first poem of the sequence "Dog Days". I especially admired the forensic accuracy, not to mention sheer interest and unexpectedness, in "A Sea View". Beginning in a deliberately alarming, disorienting way:

     There are crisp legs spread all over the balcony
     pink and white, artless and opened up to the sky

we soon meet the culprit:

     The white bird tumbles clumsily out of the sun
     carrying a small crab like a novelty reticule
     held ostentatiously in its tight tweezer-beak,
     every leg pedalling, each one on its unicycle

That "novelty reticule" is pitch-perfect, as indeed is the whole poem. So, most of the time, is her more colloquial register – Jack the house-martin with his "new build" under the eaves. The only time it ever jars is on the few occasions when it slides into the non-adult. I don't know if this is just my personal quirk but for me, words like "whiffy" and "stinky" are too much the province of schoolchildren to look at ease in adult poems.

If animals and birds figure prominently, so do childhood memories, and they are all well evoked, but though this is natural subject matter for any writer, there is a problem in that we have all read so many "I remember" poems. It's a theme, therefore, that needs something special in order to work, and the best example of that in this collection is "Too Much Sky", a war memory that only announces itself as such via the date in the epigraph. Here the memory is enough out of the common to startle, yet because we are seeing through a child's eyes we can identify with it. She finds a similarly original way into the much-used theme of bereavement, not many have adopted her technique of allowing the loved ghost to age in her mind:

     There on my left, as ever, lies your ghost,
     hunched in the still-familiar position.
     I’ve let it age with me so I won’t lose it.
     Pursing my lips I blow the fine white hair
     that strives to hide the vulnerable scalp
     making a place to plant a phantom kiss

Her concerns range from the very serious, like bereavement here, and incipient dementia in "Connie Calls", to the completely whimsical, like the dung-beetle likened to a football player dribbling a rather unusual ball. The whimsy will not work for everyone, for nothing is so personal a taste as humour. But it is the ever-present consciousness and possibility of humour that often humanises the darker poems and staves off any hint of sentimentality. The sign-off in "Way To Go", where the speaker's ghost hops down from a horse-drawn hearse to help the street urchin coming behind with his bucket, is wryly typical.

Vanitas is available from Shoestring here

 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
27 February 2019 @ 07:24 pm

Writers and displacement



Now and then, someone organises a scholarly conference on the importance to writers of a sense of place (generally in some place unreachable by public transport). But the other reason I never end up going is that, with a few exceptions, or apparent exceptions, the writers who fascinate me do not have a sense of place so much as a sense of displacement.

Though I think this may always have been so, I became conscious of it while teaching on the University of Glamorgan's Masters in Writing degree when I was successively tutor to three poets, all émigrées to the UK from the USA – Tamar Yoseloff, Karen Annesen and Barbara Marsh. What struck me about all of them was that they observed the place where they now lived differently; they noticed and highlighted things that for a native-born poet might not have stood out, and over and over, their sense of the place where they were was informed by their equally keen sense of that other place where they had once been, but now were not.

A perfectly adjusted organism would be silent

- E M Forster: A Passage to India

Read more...Collapse )
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

The first thing I'd say is, give it a chance. It does look puzzling at first; the narrative techniques he is using are not immediately clear. But they become so, pretty quickly, and it is worth sticking with the story through the initial puzzlement because it soon becomes very moving.   

You might also want to look up "bardo"; leastways, I'd never heard of it. It turns out to be a Buddhist concept meaning "an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth". I'm not altogether certain that this is exactly what it means here, because there is no hint of rebirth; rather, the bardo seems to be a sort of waiting room for people whose remains of consciousness won't allow them to admit to themselves that they are finally, irrevocably, dead. 

Indeed this refusal seems wholly understandable, for at the back of this whole novel is the intrinsic unfairness of death, the arbitrary wiping out of a conscious, feeling personality. None of the souls we meet in the bardo (which seems to be bounded by the cemetery fence) had finished with life: all had reason to want to stay in the world of the living. Hans Vollman was looking forward to consummating his marriage when a beam fell on his head; Roger Bevins, just after he slit his wrists following an unhappy affair, realised the extreme beauty of the world and how much more he craved of it. Elise Traynor, dead at 14, is tormented by thoughts of the sexual and emotional life she never lived to have: "and the choise being made, it would be rite, and would become Love, and Love would become baby, and that is all I ask". Which doesn't seem much to ask.
 

If death is unfair on the dead, it is equally so on the bereaved, and this is where Lincoln comes in, for his 11-year-old son Willie has just died, and even in the middle of a war, with people criticising his policy and vilifying him personally right and left, this is a catastrophe to put all others in the shade. The action moves between real life, in the days just before and after Willie's death, and the world of the bardo, the souls hanging on at the edge of consciousness. The narrative in the bardo is carried by the speech or thought of several different narrators, while that in real-life consists of extracts from historical books and papers (most are factual, a few are not).  One thing this technique does is to show how subjective is historical truth; there is one short but telling chapter about a particular occasion, a party at the White House, which consists entirely of quotes from different guests about the moonlight that evening. There was no moon at all, or a crescent, or a full moon; it was silver, golden, green, blue…. not for nothing do policemen say there is no one less reliable than an eyewitness.

Lincoln, musing in the cemetery where he comes to visit his son's coffin, articulates the pain that has always occupied human minds: " Trap. Horrible trap. At one's birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby also must depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget."

When the souls in the bardo are troubled by the thought that they might actually be dead (they prefer to think of themselves as sick), they cite their own consciousness in support of their belief: "To whom do you speak? I said. Who is hearing you?" This form of words recurs, and it puts me in mind of a poem of Paulus Silentiarius in the Greek Anthology, a universal epitaph which takes the form of a dialogue between the dead person (or perhaps the words on his tomb) and the living reader of those words. It ends with a question from the living person to the dead:
 

Who are you that speak,
To whom do you speak?

The poem is bleak, implying that what one was in life matters very little after death. The novel on the other hand seeks for some redemptive factor in the "horrible trap". It might be the sense Lincoln's own grief gives him of communion with the grief of others:

His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow, toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that all were suffering, that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content, all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood) and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact, that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time.
 

It might also be Roger Bevins's ecstatic sense of the smallest details of life, which causes him to manifest as a being with innumerable eyes, ears, noses and hands, the better to experience them, or the way in which Betsy Baron, alcoholic and inadequate parent, eventually manages to see herself clearly. When her form flickers between all the things she was in life plus those she never attained – "attentive mother, mindful baker of bread and cakes" – there is a sense that these things too were a part of her, even though they were never manifested in life. At the end, one of the bardo-ghosts, temporarily inhabiting Lincoln's body along with him, slips for a moment into that of his horse and immediately feels at one with the animal as well. It is this sense of shared consciousness, experience, destiny, that most lingers from the novel.

 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Review of The Intriguing Life and Ignominious Death of Maurice Benyovszky, by Andrew Drummond, pub. Routledge 2018

"It Made His Story A Little Suspicious"

Just so we know where we are. Andrew Drummond is a novelist with a background in languages and history. His adult novels to date have all been set in the past and combine surprising but true historical facts with a wildly inventive and slightly deranged imagination. Now he has written a genuine history book, published by Routledge no less, with proper sources, index an' all, but luckily nobody told him he should make it academic and dull, so he has written it as he does his novels, ie with a pleasantly pawky sense of humour (the chapter headings, of which the above is one, are all quotes from historical sources and include "Short And Incomplete, It Is Written With A Bias"  and "Foreign Paper With Horizontal Writing", among others). Oh, and the nominal subject is an historical figure with a wildly inventive and slightly deranged imagination.

It is set in 18th-century Russia, as was his novel Novgorod the Great (also distinguished by its eccentric chapter headings) and concerns both the actual life and the memoirs of the eponymous Maurice. Benyovszky was one of those fantasists, like the Welsh sailor-author Tristan Jones, who genuinely did lead a life full of adventures but who felt driven, and entitled, to embellish them. However, Jones was basically quite an amiable character, while Benyovszky was not. He resembles far more closely a fantasist who came, like himself, from eastern Europe and was known as Jan Hoch until he changed his name to Robert Maxwell.

Benyovszky's actual life bears only a passing resemblance to his memoirs, as becomes apparent when Drummond interweaves them with those of other eyewitnesses to events. These are sometimes fascinating characters in their own right, especially Ivan Ryumin, clerk, and Benyovszky's polar opposite, a conscientious recorder of facts with a positive mania for counting and listing things. His "Description of the capital city of Paris", in full, is a list of numbers – streets ("excluding alleys"), nunneries, bridges, street lights and much, much else. I took greatly to Ryumin and was massively pleased at how things turned out for him.

The events of the book centre on a daring, and historical, mass escape of prisoners from Siberia and what happened to them afterwards, which was exciting enough though nowhere near as exciting as Benyovszky makes it. But its real theme, I think, is truth, and how fiction gets made out of it. Translation plays a big part in this, often acting more as a barrier than as an entry into another culture – as when someone, translating a French description of an island, mistranslates "inhabité" as "inhabited" when in fact it means the reverse – an error which could have meant life or death to any sailor relying on the information. At one point, Drummond finds himself citing a book called Description of the Land of Kamchatka by Stefan Krasheninnikov, published in 1755. It was translated into English by James Grieve in 1764. Grieve had lived in Russia for 30 years, so should have been well qualified to translate such a work, but he had an interesting notion of a translator's rights and responsibilities:

"The third part of this work has been most considerably abridged, as in treating of the manner, customs and religion of this barbarous nation it was loaded with absurd practices, idle ceremonies and unaccountable superstitions. Sufficient examples of all these have been retained to shew the precise state of an unpolished, credulous and grossly ignorant people."

This is, of course, not only the translator as liar but the filtering of a culture through colonialist eyes, another way in which reality becomes distorted and one which becomes more important as the book progresses. I don't want to give away too much, because the actual facts, and fictions, and downright lies, are so much fun for a reader to discover. You couldn't make it up, except where Benyovszky did.

 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
25 December 2018 @ 11:56 am

"People can change their minds about little things but on the big ones, they'd rather die first. A used-up planet scares the piss out of them, after they spent their whole lives thinking the cupboard would never go bare."

It's incredibly hard to write a novel on Current Issues without making it sound like a lecture or a sermon. One mistake many authors make is to forget that the heart of a novel, the reason readers persist with it, is never The Issues but rather the characters: if these are no more than a peg to hang issues on, readers will soon be off elsewhere.

Kingsolver is too old a hand to make this error: it would be very hard not to get involved with Willa, wondering why, when she and her husband have done everything "right" – steady jobs, family, etc – they now, in 2016, haven't a spare penny to bless themselves with and stop their house falling down. Or with Thatcher Greenwood, in 1871, trapped in the wrong marriage and trying to teach proper science in a school whose principal still believes in Noah's Ark.

For Thatcher lived over a century before Willa, albeit on the same plot of land, and their stories alternate and interlace. This is the other device whereby Kingsolver manages to come at her message obliquely rather than head-on. One thing Thatcher and Willa have in common is that both live in times when people are frightened of the new and try to cling to old certainties, even when this means ignoring evidence and trusting to faith, or instinct. But it is Thatcher, back in 1871, who witnesses a demonstration against a Darwinist in Boston:

the crude effigy dangling from a noose, the monkey's tail pinned to the stuffed trousers, the murderous crowd chanting Lock him up!

and Thatcher's boss who begins little notes with "Fact!" before citing lies.

Thatcher and Willa do not seek intellectual shelter in comforting myths, but they cling to other, emotional, shelters: he to a marriage that is going nowhere and she to the hope of financial security for her family (and incidentally, if British readers ever doubted the importance of the NHS, Kingsolver's account of Willa's problems getting care for her ailing father-in-law should convince them). Even Willa's daughter Tig (short for Antigone, her father is Greek), who has figured out that there is little point in getting attached to material things when "the world is running out of the stuff we need", is not immune from seeking shelter in caring for her half-orphaned infant nephew. Without shelter, the novel says, we stand in daylight, but we also feel extremely vulnerable. The only person in the novel who arguably does do without shelter of any kind is Thatcher's scientist friend Mary Treat (an historical person).

Willa's security is in material possessions, what her daughter calls "stuff", and not till close to the end does she realise that the more stuff there is, the better chance that whatever of it really matters will get lost, swallowed up in the mass of the inconsequential.  It would be wrong to betray to potential readers how the various protagonists eventually decide to confront their problems. I will say one thing. I have heard some folk who have been listening to the radio dramatisation, which I've been avoiding since I hadn't yet read the book, and who have been disappointed. Don't judge the book by the adaptation.  It's the first novel I have read which not only addresses recent political events but reaches beyond them to what Tig, representing a new generation, sees as the root cause, a world no longer adequate to the consumer demands being made on it:

"There's a lot of white folks out there hanging on to their God-given right to look down on some other class of people. They feel it slipping away and they're scared. […] Total fantasy. I mean, look around, who do you see that's living la vida white man? Really it's just down to a handful of guys piling up everything they can grab and sitting on top of it. And a million poor jerks like Papu still hoping they can get into the club. How long can that last?"

Just as she did in The Lacuna, Kingsolver has written a Great American Novel for our time, but not just for America. It is both powerful and uncomfortable, because the solution, if there still is one, doesn't just involve changing one set of politicians for another, but rather one lifestyle and set of life goals for another.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

I've often admitted to a special fondness for émigré poets, because they seem to have a sharper, less habituated way of looking at things and because they see their new surroundings through the prism of the old, which makes things more interesting. Expats never feel as if they have a comfort zone, they write from an edge, like people observing but on the verge of leaving.

Well, here we have one who identifies, in two poems, as an "ex-expatriate" – someone who has spent a long time away from her place of birth, then returned to it. If anything, this is even more interesting, because of course the person who returns cannot be the same as the one who left, and whatever she experienced elsewhere will change her viewpoint on what she once thought she knew.

It also means she is never fully at home anywhere. In "The Accidental German" she is a transplanted American who

         gets sentimental
         for Methodist Churches, rodeo queens
         and motel ice machines

while in "Another Ex-Expatriate" she is

          an emigrant back with a prodigal sigh
          and half a heart across the sea.

There's no way to solve this conundrum, but as a writer you wouldn't want to; it is too fruitful.

Another defining characteristic of hers is a lightness of touch on essentially serious matters. Deracination, language, a life-threatening illness, all are treated with an entire absence of solemnity. It isn't humour exactly, more a cosmic sense of proportion, that enables her, in "James Bond and the Type 1 Diabetic Bridesmaid", to see the medical paraphernalia of diabetes as the emergency gadgets Q tends to lay out before 007 in the films:

          She's ruled some things out:
          the knife holder from Chinatown
          now unstrapped from her thigh,
          jellybeans hand-sewn to bra straps,
          elastic candy wristlets
          to bite at the slightest low.

A similarly audacious metaphor turns "Miss Hydraulic Fracturing", which could so easily have been preachy, into a delight:

          Here she is-
          Strip Mining's half-sister
          just come to our school
          with sleek hair and old tricks […]

          she has football players
          in her bed
          she has school board members
          in her bed.

          she's not her, of course,
          the half-sister we know
          but listen, watch
          you can tell they're kin-

          here we go, here we go again.

In "Hunting Season", American deer "throw themselves at cars" like the Rhineland sailors who were said to throw themselves from boats under the Lorelei's spell. This looks like the strangest metaphor yet, but the Rhineland is where the ex-expatriate has been, and now a near-miss between animal and car leads to a meditation on various kinds of "touching but not-quite-meeting"; strangers brushing past in the subway, a shark's shadow in the water uncomfortably close.

          How startling it is, when space
          is not wholly yours
          the way you thought it was.

That juxtaposition, and the observation it leads to, are so the kind of thing I have come to expect of expat poets, and am always happy to find. The "sharps" of the title poem are hypodermic needles, but it's an adjective that can equally apply to the observation and language here.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh



This is an anthology of poems chosen from entries to a competition for poems on "themes relevant to working class life, politics, communities and culture". It was judged by Andy Croft of the publisher Smokestack and Mary Sayer of the Unite union.

Themed anthologies are odd beasts. Their big advantage is that they can appeal to readers who might not normally think poetry had much to say to them, or know where to begin with it – indeed they are, unless totally inept, pretty much sure to appeal to readers who share the anthology's particular interest. This reaching out to an unaccustomed audience is a worthwhile thing to attempt, though whether it succeeds would depend, I suppose, as much on the publisher's promotion skills as on the product. The themed anthology has drawbacks too, and most of them depend on the kind of theme chosen. If the theme is narrow in scope, the poems can be too repetitive and unvarying. This is not a problem here, for the theme is a pretty wide one. If the theme is in any way political, religious or ecological, the tone can soon start to sound preachy, and this is a problem in some poems here.

The one problem I think nearly all themed anthologies have is that, because the criteria for inclusion embrace theme as well as intrinsic merit, the content tends to be of more uneven quality than would be the case in an anthology chosen on poetic skill alone. Again this depends on how wide the potential pool was: there has been enough good poetry written on the theme of, say, the Great War to fill several anthologies. Here, the pool was the 800 competition entries. Going by the late Leslie Norris's estimate that, in competitions he'd judged, about 10% of the entries were in serious contention, this should have yielded about 80 poems of interest. In fact this pamphlet contains 23, and not all of them would make my cut, but then judging does contain some very personal elements.

The best, for my money, are those that approach their subject subtly, from an angle. This might be a metaphor, like football in Helen Burke's "The Match", which depicts its subjects

Stood outside the ground
Most of us.
Trying to get a ticket for our own lives.

Or it might be via a focus on one individual, as in Jim Mainland's "The Carpenter", celebrating the work of Francesco Tuccio of Lampedusa, who makes crosses out of driftwood and wreckage to commemorate refugees who died en route and celebrate those who survive. This poem's vocabulary shimmers with delicate allusion: Tuccio genuinely is a carpenter and the implications of a carpenter who makes crosses cannot be missed, but the reader is not bludgeoned with them. We are trusted to pick up throwaway references to

an ecumenical gathering
of hooks, screws, pins, tacks, staples, rivets, nails

and

gaudy, misshapen, blistered, sea-sucked
wreckage that is already reliquary

until the powerful ending, in which the cross itself turns into an image:

a tree out-branched, upright on the level plain,
a raised hand to haul you from hostile waters.

Steve Pottinger's poem "Glass collector" is another that derives its strength from its focus on an individual, who defies people's preconceptions about him, and from a play on the word "space". Again this succeeds because it is concerned not only to get its theme across but to use words well and memorably – the best way, by far, to get any theme across, if only polemicists would realise it. Could there be a more pointed or economical way to achieve what Owen Gallagher's Glaswegian narrator does in his coinage of "right hoorable" for "right honourable"?

There were several other poems that impressed me in places, though some were, I thought, itching for an editor. A few fell into the category of "carefully observed memories of childhood", a genre I generally find workmanlike rather than exciting, though this may be a personal taste. And a few were just too angry for their own good and ended up sputtering rather than speaking. The introduction mentioned with approval the "passionate" nature of the poems: passion is fine when controlled by intellect and distance, but if passion is allowed to take over a poem, verbal skill tends to take its leave.

I don't think you would need to identify as working-class to find things to like in this anthology, though you'd almost certainly need to be on the left of politics. The feeling of being preached at is there in fewer poems than I had feared it might be, and the best of the poems, about a third of them, are surely worth the modest £5 price-tag. It can be bought here
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
11 November 2018 @ 10:47 am
A recent FB post by a friend got me thinking how much time I have spent, as a writer, doing things I didn't really want to get sucked into, just because it's so hard to say no. I suspect, from that and other posts, that other writers also find it a problem. Now that I am older and wilier I have collected a few tips about avoiding this, and here they are:

1. The most vital - NEVER agree to discuss anything on the phone. There is more than one reason for this; unless you record it, you will have no proof of what was said, which will be awkward if the caller happens to be, say, an unscrupulous journalist who will twist your words, or an entrepreneur who is good at forgetting promises and denying he ever made them (met both). But my main reason is that it's far harder to say no to a voice in your ear than to an email. Old and wily as I am, I got caught like this fairly recently by a man who insisted on ringing, then badgered me into agreeing to his use of a poem I didn't really want used. If ever anyone says "Oh, I'd much rather talk on the phone, we will understand each other so much better than in writing", remember that what he is really saying is "It will be easier for me to get my own way". Tell him you have hearing loss or a terrible phone line/memory and INSIST on email or snailmail.

2. If it's something the enquirer should be paying you for, mention money very early in the proceedings. Don't just assume they will, because it's quite possible they won't and will hope to get you for nothing. If the mere mention of money sends them scuttling, all the better; at least you haven't wasted your time doing any free work. It took me half a lifetime to forget my mother's belief that it was rude to mention money. It isn't if you want to get your hands on any.

3. If you have a blog and do reviews, folk will ask you to review their books. I don't mind these requests. You see books you might otherwise miss and I enjoy writing reviews anyway. What I don't enjoy is feeling obliged to, and if a small publisher sends me an actual book copy, I feel: well, this has cost them a copy and postage, I really must review it even if I can't think of much to say. My solution to this is to ask enquirers to send an electronic copy instead. I don't mind reading onscreen, and when I know it hasn't cost them anything, I feel better about emailing back, if necessary, "sorry but I don't think I'm the right reviewer for this".

There you are - gratis, the stratagems of a chronically shy person who cannot actually echo Gideon from Local Hero in saying "and are there two Gs in "bugger off?" but who thinks it quite a lot...
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Be careful going up the stair.
Someone's left their shadow there.


An orphan. A mystery. An old house with a grumpy housekeeper. Something that shouldn't be able to talk, but can. Snow. Supernatural beings with evil intent. Looking for a Christmas present for an intelligent youngster? Look no further, but buy this early, because you're going to want to read it a couple of times yourself before wrapping it – once very quickly, to find out what happens next, and then more slowly, to savour the prose, the tension, the winter descriptions, the world-building. Allegedly this is a children's book, and I mean children's, not YA. But then so was Masefield's The Midnight Folk and I still re-read that….

I suppose its intended audience shows most clearly in the linear narrative; there is only one point-of-view character, the girl Seren, and we are with her throughout, whereas in Fisher's YA novels, there are liable to be two or three narrative threads going on at any one time, and we shift between them. The intended audience, however, makes no odds to the depth of character; people in a Fisher novel are never two-dimensional or easily pigeonholed. Seren, the protagonist, is as spiky and independent as most of Fisher's young heroines, and her confederate the Crow is even more so – their tart, combative exchanges are a joy and the final revelation of his identity beautifully apt.

Nor does the targeted age-group result in any noticeable simplification of the vocabulary; Fisher doesn't believe in talking down to readers. The book is set in the Victorian past where carriages still coexist with railways, and life in the house itself harks back yet further:
Immediately Seren jumped from her chair and ran to the sideboard. It was full of small brown drawers marked with old-fashioned labels. Barley Sugar, Cocoa and Chocolate, All Sorts of Seeds, Isinglass Shavings, Heartsease. She pulled them open hastily. They contained spicy mixtures smelling sharp and pungent, but none of them were what she wanted. Then on a shelf she saw a small flask labelled Oil of Cloves.
The labels are perfect for evoking a past time (who could resist All Sorts of Seeds?) but if child readers want to know what isinglass or heartsease are, they can go and find out. It's part of the experience, their own interaction with mystery. I should think child readers would probably be intrigued by the subtle time indicators – dresses bought as material and made up at home, dedicated bathrooms that are a novelty suggestive of considerable wealth. They would also be enchanted by the wintry atmosphere (I sometimes wonder if there is any limit to the number of ways Fisher can conjure up cold; probably not). And they would surely love the textual illustrations – crows perched on the chapter headings, stars scattered across the corners of pages. Though I may say that on my first reading, I failed to notice these, because I was too busy speed-reading, being wild to discover how it turned out.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Jim Mainland's pamphlet titles are always an interesting indicator of what he is up to. A Package of Measures alluded both to government measures and the various verse forms he was using, while League of Notions, (reviewed here) again associated his political themes with the exuberance and fancy of his language and imagery.

"Fuglicaavie" is an Old Norse portmanteau word meaning, more or less, a blizzard of birds, originally coined by Shetland fishermen to describe the cloud of birds that follows a fishing boat coming in with its catch. The poem with this title is a shape-poem representing the said boat, and the picture – both the boat and the cloud of following birds – is made up of words from the Shetlandic dialect of Norn, the language spoken in the islands until a few centuries ago but now lost as a language, though many words survive in dialect. Anyone who doesn't get the point of shape-poems should have a look at this one and see how moving is the image of the cloud of lost words following the boat home; if there is a way this could have been as powerfully expressed without using a pictorial image, it isn't obvious to me.

 But as one of the quotes used as an epigraph points out, the word caavie can apply to anything, which is why we also have the grim poem "Styrocaavie", about the pernicious microbeads of polystyrene, deceptively resembling snow, with which we are busy polluting "our"  environment:
falling as friendly precipitation

in the beauty of clog and glom and chronic
fallout beside take-away residual hill and shore
headaches falling into the interstices and sleeving
for the central nervous symptoms whose falling

systems take hundreds of years to decompose whose
few known methods of breaking down cannot
be simulated

As can be seen, the language here becomes, in a different way from the words in "Fuglicaavie", itself a caavie, a blizzard of words not necessarily falling in what we may think of as the "right" order. And the randomness, the breakdown of ordered syntax, immeasurably heightens the anguish of the tone. Mainland is a poet living in a remote rural place; it would be a huge mistake to suppose him, on that account, apolitical or unaware of contemporary concerns, particularly environmental ones. Bidisha, chairing this year's Forward Prize panel, said snidely and superficially "A poet is not an old white heterosexual male philanderer talking about what he saw on his walk". Leaving out the "philanderer", this would actually be a fair description of Mr Mainland and his methods, but you see, madam, it rather depends how sharply one observes on one's walk and how one's talent transmutes observation into language.

As readers of his earlier work will know, Mainland often collaborates with musicians and some of his poems do have musical accompaniments which I've heard performed. When I was wondering how on earth the poem "Fuglicaavie" could be performed for an audience, it did strike me as possible, given a projector and soundtrack, so that the words could move across the screen, while several disembodied voices spoke them in random combinations. It would be unconventional, but then it is rare to find a poet to whom both shape and music are so important.

There are more conventionally constructed poems too in this collection – even a long poem in terza rima (""The Water Diviner"). But the measured cadences of "The Carpenter", celebrating Francesco Tuccio, who made the Lampedusa Cross from shipwreck wood in memory of drowned refugees, hold the same anguish and power as the caavie poems:

After the sea of children's cries, and worse,
the flooded, capsizing, submerged silence,
a slow dystopian interrogation
of lost papers and sifted identities

The poet conjures up a possible motivation for so hazardous a journey:

a dream
you once had, where you walked among strangers,
were freely enfolded in their welcome;
a gesture whose simple shape your fingers
now trace and retrace clasp and unclasp:
a tree out-branched, upright on the level plain,
a raised hand to haul you from hostile waters.


This pamphlet is £6 inc, p & p and is probably the best £6 you've ever spent if you are interested in what innovative and aware poetry can do, whatever the age, ethnicity and inclination of whoever writes it.  The author is doing the distribution: he can be contacted at Rockville, Nibon, Hamar, Shetland, ZE2 9RQ. Or if you're lucky enough to live near Lerwick, you can find it in the Shetland Times bookshop.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
"Another few feet of the cliff are gone. The end of the yard is a booby-trap, something out of a cartoon. There's nothing underneath to support your weight, just a drop into the constant traffic of the waves against the rocks. Fresh rock and soil and dangling roots like the nerves of an extracted tooth are exposed along the C-shape of the cliff face. One of the trees, a dogwood, clings to the cliff-side at a desperate angle, four-petalled blossoms shivering in the constant sea breeze. It looks like it's still falling. I can't see the other one at all. My dogwood tree at the bottom of the sea."

This alarmingly unstable residence is on the island of Swan, located in the archipelago of the Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire. There is in fact such an island, but this is very much a fictitious version of it. In the book, (set in the present, 2015) the island has become a sort of gated community for the old, that doesn't, due to its location, actually need gates. Our narrator The Kid, a 17-year-old girl, has in effect been dumped there on her grandmother by her feckless drug-addled parents, who promised to return for her but failed to do so. The grandmother has since died and the girl, who has needed to be resourceful in her short life, is hanging on in the house, tolerated by some of the regular inhabitants (the Wrinklies) but resented by others, and supporting herself in an interesting way, by digitally altering all the photos and cine film that comprise the lifelong memories of her elderly neighbour, Mrs Tyburn, to better reflect the way that lady wishes her life had been – overweight children are miraculously slimmed, and the boat named after a husband's mistress rechristened, by the magic of a little technical know-how that remains a mystery to the Wrinklies.

The Kid, in fact, has been messed about by inadequate adults all her life and is now living on sufferance in a community set up to cater to the needs of oldies but gradually and literally crumbling away into the ocean, arguably as a result of that generation's actions in the past. The nearby island of Duck is plagued by sudden methane explosions, the result of having been used for years as a dump for, among other rubbish, disposable nappies. There is a certain grim humour here, and also in The Kid's narrative voice, which is one of the best things about the novel. Blake Morrison's quote on the back, saying he hadn't been so captivated by a first-person voice since Holden Caulfield, nearly put me off, for even as a teenager I found Holden a tiresome brat. The Kid is a great deal more engaging. It does strike me that for a girl who has not been much in school and, we are told, hasn't read much, her vocabulary is a bit too extensive and sometimes verging on the literary. But she is very listenable.

There are a fair few typos in my proof copy, which I've been asked to ignore since they'll hopefully be edited out. I will mention one, because I'm tired of seeing published works, whose authors and editors should know better, spell the verb "retch", meaning to vomit, as if it were the noun "wretch", meaning a literary person who can't spell…

The voice puzzled me at times by having, I thought, a tinge of UK English, which seemed strange in a book so firmly set in the US, Sure enough, the writer turns out to be one of those deracinated exiles I so often find the most interesting, because they see their own country clearer from a distance (rather like RLS describing Edinburgh from Samoa). This probably explains the sharpness of the topographical descriptions of Swan Island. All in all, this is one of the better novels I've read this year, original and engaging with a saving touch of humour.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh

Here's a challenge. You have a short pamphlet of poems (there are 12 or 15, depending on whether you count a sequence as one poem or four) whose subject matter is football. Can you interest and engage a reader who admittedly likes poetry, but whose knowledge of football stops at a one-time adolescent crush on George Best and a liking for the film The Damned United?

The answer, much of the time, is yes. Of course, one reason is that subject matter is not the only thing, nor even the main thing, that poems are about. Here, football becomes emblematic of male solidarity, class conflict, a semi-condoned vent for energy and violence. In the first poem, "Tohuwabohu", it is more, the ball becomes the mythological egg laid by Night, from which the world hatches. This might sound OTT, and indeed there is a humour in the exalted language that would be hard to miss. But for all that, the comparison between egg and ball, and other round objects (suns, worlds, testicles) is not entirely frivolous. The mediaeval and post-mediaeval games involving whole towns, few rules and a lot of casual violence are represented here by the game at Bartholomew Fair, which was in August, but most of these games were held in winter, often around Christmas and New Year, when it is tempting to see the ball as a stand-in for the absent sun.

As one might expect from Ely, the matter of class conflict becomes central, and several poems concern the chasm between amateur and professional. The concept of amateurism in sport is often romanticised; here it is forcefully pointed out that "ludere causa ludendi" is a motto relevant only to people with money. The Carthusians and Corinthians, playing the game "for game's delight" are in a different world from the Northern slaters and riveters for whom football could be a rare escape route from poverty, provided they could get paid for doing so, and even non-football fans will at this point find themselves siding against the Carthusians with their "hands of white kid" and with Fergus Suter:

riveting plate till the shipyard hooter
blares and the working day relents
and limps to his cockroach tenement
where even a dram can't ease the pain;
play up Corinth, play the game.

It is interesting to note that the "Scottish game", the subject of the pamphlet's central sequence, differed from the English public-school game not only in being keener on paid professionals but in being more collaborative, as befitted its working-class roots. The English game had favoured individuals holding on to the ball and dribbling it as long as possible; the "Scottish game" introduced the passing play which characterises present-day football. There's something quite satisfying about that.

The final poem, "Jubilate Messi", is a praise-poem addressed to Lionel Messi and in a conscious echo of the style of Smart's "Jubilate Agno". This is a style that quite suits it, since it is Ely in his most allusive mode, jumping from association to association without stopping for explanations in much the same way Smart's unpredictable mind tended to. I wouldn't know Messi if I met him in the street and have certainly never seen him play. But I can recall the joy that radiated from Best's talent as he left the opposition behind, and it is much the same delight that comes through here:

I will rejoice in Lionel Andrés Messi, for he leaps before the Lord like David and his joy is uncovered: Let the rain streak bright on the flaring floodlights, Empire’s phosphorescent rainbow arching like a cat.

So… I can’t altogether share what seems to be Ely’s tolerance, if no more, of violence on the field (apologies if I’m misreading the tone, but in his “Ballad of Jack Ross”, the line “he tripped and hacked and chopped” sounds more celebratory than anything else). And yes, some background knowledge of football would probably make it more immediately accessible. But guess what: when first reading, I clean forgot Mr Ely’s helpful habit of putting notes at the back – I was too caught up in the momentum and exuberance of the poems. The notes are worth reading, they will give you a lot of interesting facts, but when I did read them I saw that the essentials had already come through to me. That says a lot for the craft.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
23 August 2018 @ 11:18 am
I'll be publishing a new collection with Seren in about April/May 2019. It's called Afternoons Go Nowhere and here's a poem from it:
Quarff Gap

A place named for nothing,
a nothing, a space
in a spine of hills,

a great scoop of sky
in a green spoon, a doorway
from east to west.

A place with a past
before history started.
Think the river back,

the giant whose bed
you stand in. It would run
where the skuas balance

between two hills,
where air pours
in place of water.

Something was here,
now nothing is. Nothing
fills the eye,

bowl-shaped, windblown,
the colour of weather,
salt-flavoured, singular.

Who knew nothing
could be such a landmark?
From the North Sea,

sailing up this coast,
bays blur; nesses flatten out,
it's hard to tell

townships apart.
But no one can miss
the gap, the emptiness

that signs its name
across landscape, sky,
that draws the fancy

like a window, or rather
the space in a ruined wall
where a window was.

 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


The six short stories in this collection range in time from the 1940s to the present and beyond, and are arranged in chronological order. I even thought, when I first read through, that I could detect gradual language change in them, but it isn't that, it is rather a very keen and natural eye for period detail, so that one really feels one is in the postwar Valleys world with its Woodbines. cockroaches and the novelty of babies being born in hospital ("Progress"), or, later, in "The Cavalry", the same milieu in the changing times of the sixties, with TV and consumer goods just beginning to infiltrate a world where men could still recall war service and council estates were aspirational places to live:
They came to the end of the council houses and to the start of the terrace. The last estate house had the gable end of the terrace instead of one of its front garden walls. She'd known it before the estate was built but it was hard to remember. The terrace of Stanley Street used to point up the hill to nothing but some old mountain and a coal tip, some old farm. Yet it wasn't all that long ago. […]

It was still unchristmassy here. Mark looked at the front room windows as they passed. It must be funny to have no front garden.

Mark, a small boy, is one of the two point-of-view characters in this story (if any wiseacre ever tells you two POVs won't work in the same story, point him at this one) and as he has done before, Meredith proves adept at seeing through a child's eyes in a completely matter-of-fact and uncontrived way:
Christmas didn' happen outside the house, like you thought it would. It was grey and grainy and unmoving and nobody was about. it was like the day went on being itself, as if it didn' care what it was supposed to be like.
It may seem odd, when looking for a theme in a collection of stories, to start in the middle, but in this case it feels appropriate. It seems to me that the preoccupation common to all of them is human contact, and this comes over most clearly in the two middle stories. In "The Cavalry", a woman who works as a home help goes out of her way, on Christmas morning, to make contact with a lonely old man, and teaches her children to do the same. Later she is dissatisfied with her efforts and feels she should have done more, resolving to go and see him again very soon – "she'd heard of Home Helps finding people. She didn't want to leave it too long".

In the next story, "The Enthusiast", set in the present, a man is accidentally reconnected via email with a childhood friend, Paul, whom he has not seen or thought about for many years. This sets off a train of memories connected with his childhood and young adulthood. The email correspondence continues but they live far enough apart for the protagonist not to think about actually arranging a meeting – though the way he over-analyses the content of Paul's emails and his own replies suggests he would like to. Then something happens which not only renders this impossible but also forces him to comprehensively re-interpret the emails he has been reading.

It would be easy, but inaccurate, to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two stories that the reason communication partly succeeds in one and fails in the other is the difference between face to face contact and email. But this is misleading. The first story, "Averted Vision", takes place during World War 2; there is plenty of face to face contact and a catastrophic failure of human communication. In the second, "Progress", set in 1950, a man in what sounds like a happy marriage is nevertheless unable to communicate to his wife his understandable reasons for taking an important decision and resorts to a lie. And in "Haptivox", set in the future, a couple seems to achieve quite an enjoyable form of communication via virtual reality. Even here, though, the couple's dream of complete union is shown to be ultimately impossible:
It seemed to her that they were like two huge buildings, or cities, with their complications of floors and passageways, stairwells and liftshafts, the lacework of girders and fills of brick and concrete and then the surges of electricity and of fluids, the traffic and commerce of every day. Imagine all that thinning and becoming porous, and then these two universes interpenetrating, the stairwells from different buildings intertwining and joining, the skeletal architectures permeating one another and interlocking. The mechanical inhabitings of sex, the crude transformations on the beach were nothing to this, where the different-same energies whispered in the different-same channels. And he felt this too. All the space that matter is made of suddenly understood itself, and was generous, and let the other in. Their different grammars and lexicons didn't just blend into a creole. They atomized as they crossed and reconfigured. And once this had happened there could be no images, nothing to observe, only this new building, with nothing outside its own self-awareness and an apprehension of the marvellous.

And immediately some part of this new place started to fail. Images started to return of lights going out and pipework cooling, a sense of some shrivelled, hard thing disconnecting itself back into being.

Individuality reasserts itself; it may be that we are all ultimately "unreachable" like the old man in "The Cavalry" or "the imperfect likeness of a quick, intelligent face, glimpsed, so to speak across a gulf" ("The Enthusiast"). But the human impulse is to attempt to bridge that gulf and it is such attempts that these stories chronicle.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
04 June 2018 @ 09:59 am
Poetry is often accused of not addressing contemporary issues, public issues. This is a lazy accusation, generally made by people like columnists seeking for an easy headline, who either don't read much poetry or who don't get the role of nuance in poetry, expecting it to spell out The Ishoos in capital letters for the benefit of the obtuse (a group for whom poetry simply cannot cater and should not try to).

When I recently reviewed Frank Dullaghan's latest collection, Lifting the Latch, one poem in particular stood out for me as addressing a current issue in a way that only a poet, as opposed to a journalist or polemicist, could really hope to do. Frank has kindly agreed to my blogging about it and quoting it in full in the process, so I am.

The first thing to note is the narrative voice. It would have been very easy to choose an "I" voice and enlist sympathy for an individual. But this poem is in the "we" voice, assuming the identity of the countless multitudes who flee, and have always fled, one place for another. And while it empathises with their plight:
We walk with our lives
on our backs, our children,
drunk from walking, by the hand,
our pasts blown up behind us
this sense of multitudes also, quite deliberately, carries a hint of alarm, not from any ill-will on the part of the speakers but because their arrival heralds massive change to a way of life:
We move through your culture,
your story telling, your politics.
[…]
We will move through your memories,

your imagination, your knowledge
of yourselves.
It is the fear of such change that leads so many to be hostile and unwelcoming in the face of this influx. The poem does not deny its reality. But the narrative voice, through its emotionless patience, its inexorable repetition of "we move" and "we walk", not only echoes the trudging feet; it points up the inevitability of what is happening and the utter uselessness of trying to turn the tide, rather than live with it. The mention of the earth's rotation reminds us of how long it has been the case, ever since we came out of Africa, that we have been moving south to north, east to west – another advantage poetry can have in addressing "current issues" is by going beyond the "current". And although the poem never explicitly says so (see above, because it's a poem, not a polemic), its end points to the fact that this movement is not just political. If climate change does what most scientists think it must (and given the kind of noddies on the "denial" side, one is driven to think it certainly will), then what now looks like a flood will seem a trickle and those who now have borders, villages, countryside they can call their own will have to realise their own place in the world is not as secure as they thought. A powerful poem.

There is Nowhere Left
by Frank Dullaghan

We move through your borders,
your villages, your countryside.
We walk with our lives
on our backs, our children,
drunk from walking, by the hand,
our pasts blown up behind us.

We move through your language,
your donated food, your fields
of tents. We walk without hope,
as if this is our new reason for being –
this great walk, this achievement
of pushing the miles behind us.

We move through your culture,
your story telling, your politics.
We walk against the turn
of the earth - East to West, our
great numbers slowing its rotation.
We will move through your memories,

your imagination, your knowledge
of yourselves. Our footsteps
will dog the rhythm of your days.
We will walk across your clean
bed linen, your tablecloths, your
conversations. There is no stopping

now that we have started. There is
no use erecting barriers, arguments,
prayers, for you too are moving,
you too are losing your place.
 
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


This is the story of a contemporary young man who goes to the bad in Sheffield, but there is a twist; he is an avatar of the Icelandic saga hero Grettir Asmundsson. The blurb calls the book a "retelling" of Grettir's Saga, but that may be slightly misleading. Aidan's story is not a simple reprise of Grettir's; for one thing, Aidan's life is punctuated and to some extent defined by a seemingly endless series of young women who are even more messed up with drink and drugs than he is, whereas women play very little part in Grettir's life (or if they do, the sagaman does not think fit to dwell on it). And his end is less like Grettir's than that of the mercifully almost-forgotten thug Raoul Mouat. Aidan is, however, very like Grettir in the way his initially quite good intentions are brought to nothing by the need to live up to the hard-man image he has, fairly accidentally, acquired and which dogs him thereafter, partly because people expect him to live up to it and misinterpret his words and actions accordingly, partly because he himself feels a need to live up to it.

In some ways, the saga's major influence on the novel is not on its characters but on its narrative method. Any saga fan will be aware of the huge cast of characters who wander in and out of a saga, so much so that the sagaman sometimes takes pity on the reader by announcing, after a character has somehow left the scene, "and now he is out of the story". This situation is replicated in the way Aidan and his friends wander from casual job to job, from relationship to relationship and from one accommodating friend's sofa or floor to another. They are transients; the people and places in their lives mostly temporary. In one short two and a half-page chapter I counted the names of 17 different people, few of whom I could recall or who would necessarily recur. Some readers might find that frustrating, but it mirrors the kind of lifestyle the novel is creating and if the reader has trouble remembering which name fits which character, Aidan almost certainly does too. You have to read it like a saga, trusting that if a particular name is going to matter, it will recur.

Aidan himself, of course, does have to come over as a character and he has to develop, from an unruly but not ill-natured child into someone who can kill. It helps too if he can retain a little sympathy from readers who are bound to get impatient with his shiftlessness and contrariness. This he manages by dint of a certain dry humour and the occasional emergence of better feelings that never quite go away, but mainly because there does seem to be a terrible inevitability about his life: if something he does can go wrong, or be disastrously misinterpreted, it surely will. In this he is very like Grettir the "ogaefumadr", the man of ill-luck.

The novel's narrative voice is a blend of the laconic saga-style and a more sardonic, modern idiom that works well:

everyone said it was Shelley who was the evil one and Mark was just going along with it because he was shagging her or a bit thick or scared of her, and probably all three. But Shelley had done Sociology A-level and said that was misogyny plain and simple and when a man was hard everyone wanted to be his friend, but if a fit young woman was they said she was a sicko. Which was all very well but years later when it was in the national press about stabbing that horse and how she had kept an Armenian slave in the cellar of a house on Spital Hill, everyone including the Home Office psychologist concluded that she was a sicko after all.

If there's one element of the saga that I miss in the novel, it is the supernatural. Glam, the terrifying ghost whom Grettir overcomes at the cost of his mental health, is, it is true, on one level what Grettir has it in him to be; he seems to Grettir as Grettir does to others and Grettir fears the darkness inside as well as outside him. This can be replicated in human terms by Aidan's fear of becoming like the child abuser who is Glam's equivalent here. But Glam is also elemental: Grettir has to fight not only other men and himself but the forces of nature and another world, and that is a dimension that for me the novel doesn't have. The odd thing is that one can see how it might; Aidan and his brother already have Irish Catholic names, why not give them the background and tortured conscience to go with it?

One of the most remarkable things about the novel is that it never loses momentum. This isn't easy when one is essentially describing the lives of a bunch of druggie layabouts; it's a milieu that can soon become a deadly bore. That it does not is both a tribute to the author's handling of pace and a vindication of his choice of style; the saga-form really does suit the material.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh


Frank Dullaghan's new collection is carefully shaped and structured. It has five named sections, and though there is a lot of thematic crossover between them, each does have a distinct character: "Small Town Brewery Blues" concerns the poet's past in Ireland, "The Children Are Silent" focuses on contemporary politics, with "Aisling" we are in the territory of dream and myth, "Lazarus Leaving" is very conscious of approaching age and death, while the final section, "Beannacht" ("blessing") is focused on family and the personal.

Dullaghan's work background in business and his long-term residence in Dubai are unusual in British poetry and have given him some fascinating subject matter. I've mentioned in previous reviews that he is one of very few poets to have actually written about the financial crash of 2008 and its effect on individuals. Although it isn't a major theme of this collection, its ripples are still felt, especially in the long meditation "Love Poem for Oreo", in which the narrator, his certainties and future plans overset by the crash ("how will I provide now/for our old age?") is temporarily too stalled to move on:
The past
will not let the future enter.
But he finds that the adaptability of the neighbour's cat he is temporarily minding in what, to both, is an unfamiliar environment helps him to change his perspective:
There is still a way
of living in the world.
The quiet, dry humour with which the poem concludes, when the cat has gone home
It would never have worked out anyway –
the language barrier, the age difference, religion,
species, politics
is very typical of Dullaghan's writing voice, in which, though the "I" voice is prominent, self-absorption and self-pity are emphatically not. The political poems in the second section are some of his most powerful yet, I think, and the more so for curbing and controlling their feelings. In "Doll" he imagines a child playing in Gaza.
She wraps a bandage
around the doll's eyes
so it cannot see, covers its ears
to grant it passage to a new world
of silence. Then she pulls of
both of its legs, yanking them
from their plastic sockets, discovering
how cleanly it happens, the lack
of blood.
What he is very good at is making the connections and comparisons between his own life and the lives of people in the wider world (one reason, I think, that he chooses to juxtapose sections I and 2). In the poem "Things I Don't Know" he marries political concern with technical skill in a corona-like form, using the last word of each verse to lead on to the next and, in each, contrasting small inconveniences with matters of life and death:
I know about boats. But not like that,
not recklessly, not as small heavy bobbings overladen
in the crash of a soul-sick sea,
not that deadly form of travel.

I know about travel – motorways, traffic-jams,
airport security checks. But I know nothing about
the pregnant belly of a truck, nothing
about gasping for delivery, for foreign air.
Again, a lot of the impact of this comes from his ability to retain enough emotional detachment to shape and control his utterance. This is true even in the poems dealing with age and death. Indeed the wry tone often returns, as in "The Voices of the Dead", which begins "I sit with a coffee and my dead brother". This supernatural encounter does not produce any cosmic answers to life, the universe and everything:
We expect the dead to be wise but they are
only themselves. What did you expect, he says.

You don't think of me that often any more. True.
Life does that. It fills you up with its noise,
leaves little space in your head for the voices of the dead.
Indeed, in "Love Poem for Oreo" the poet reflects that "this is not a time for answers". What you get in this collection, underpinned by considerable technical skill, are questions that need thinking about, juxtapositions that throw new light on each other and, very often, phrases so exact that they linger in the mind – "some moments can last longer than others" ("Remembering Your Green Dress").
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a themed pamphlet, of 25 poems about and around the Great War. It opens with what might be construed as a disclaimer and a warning, a poem called "Séance" which implies that at this distance, "occluded by one century/and the paradigms of myth", professional historical methods have little more chance of getting at the truth of those times than does the tawdry sham that is a séance.

And of course it is true that nobody could expect 25 poems to provide a comprehensive overview of five years of global carnage, nor is that the aim. The poems are more like torches, pointed into odd and sometimes unexpected corners to highlight whatever was going on there at the time. It isn't always life at the front. The title poem commemorates the inventor of daylight saving, William Willett, whose early-morning rides inspired him to bring the "morning, incandescent with summer" to those still asleep behind their curtains. The irony of this happening in 1916, when the extra daylight was spent in extra work and worry, and the even greater irony that Willett had died of influenza the year before:
1916, and, like many a medal, your monument arrives
post-mortem, the blinds still drawn in Petts Wood
is as much part of the times as events in the trenches. So is "Mrs Mounter", the landlady immovable in her doorway who has seen so many young men come and go.

The torches do seem to shine on artistic individuals more often than not – the artist Christopher Nevinson, poets of several nationalities, Saki, Helen Thomas, widow of Edward. I think my favourite of these was "Let Us Sleep Now", an imagined encounter in which Owen has the "strange meeting" with his one-time enemy not in hell but on a Vienna tram, and finds him "clean and good-looking and well again" – albeit headed towards the cemetery at the end of the line. And there is an unforgettable blackly humorous moment in "Phoebus Apollo", about the aristocratic Julian Grenfell adjusting to life at the front:
As with all sport, you took to it well, bagged a laurel;
found increase in battle, love in the taking of life
and gilded your game book with three Pomeranians.
That brief moment when the reader thinks: even an English aristo wouldn't shoot small fluffy lapdogs, before realising that these are the Pomeranians who live in Pomerania, is surely deliberate, and very effective.

But for my money the poems in the voices of the less famous bring the physicality of the war most vividly to life. In "The Turnip Winter" it is easy to identify with the German mother's feelings of inadequacy at not being able to provide for her children, while in "Trench Requisites" we have one of the pamphlet's most successful voices, that of a sardonic and embittered veteran whose attitude to new arrivals at the front is one of pardonable impatience and brutal honesty.
Yes, how we hate you, you cheerful young men
with your tinned kippers and today's Daily Mail;
the periscope from Harrods, the warm new boots.

It will be noted from the above that we are still in officer country here, and in fact other ranks make relatively few appearances except, interestingly enough, in the poems influenced by French and German poets and in one poem about the Russian women's battalion. Non-English views of this war don't seem to gravitate so inexorably toward the experiences of the officer class. However it was one of the poems translated from German (from an original by Heinrich Lersch) which had, I thought, the only genuinely weak ending in the pamphlet. I don't know the original, so can't tell if Lersch alone is to blame for "at home, a mother dries her tears", but it didn't work for me.

A lot of research has clearly gone into these poems, and despite the disclaimer in the first poem it seems to me that the result is to shine a genuinely convincing and vivid light on those aspects of the time that he has chosen.
 
 
Sheenagh Pugh
07 May 2018 @ 07:52 am
This was a Facebook post from a couple of years back; I re-read it and decided it really belonged on the blog.

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


We go together like certain words
but you are also my sentence
- "Erotomania"

This is a poet who is extremely interested in words and the ways they fit together. Her thought process, very often, is shaped by word-association: one word suggests another, either via rhyme, or accidental likeness (if puns are ever completely accidental), or ideas that connect them. Sometimes this affects single word choice, as "stock" in the poem "Deer" comes by way of "flowerbeds":
I tend flowerbeds
dreaming of a mother
Alice stands stock-still
amongst butterflies

Other times, it is more as if every word or phrase with a potential double meaning is a junction where the poem may wander off down some unexpected and often interesting byway:
maybe I could save up all the dust
in words and bookstores libraries
put it in the fog bank
an offshore account for tax avoidance
- "The Old Nubble Light Foghorn"

The minimalist punctuation is part of this: the less you use, the more possible meanings language acquires. Thus, in the ending of "The Doll's House",
I am apparent
in the language I write
there are no clocks
but I have time
it would be possible to put a full stop either after "apparent" or after "write" and change the meaning radically – "I am apparent in the language I write" or " in the language I write there are no clocks". This happens fairly regularly in the collection; the result being not that one needs to choose one meaning, but that the poet can have it both ways.

There are times I feel left behind at some junction, while the poem careers off into the distance. In the opening five-poem sequence, "The Somnambulist Who Stood Still", I feel I am totally missing something. It isn't a matter of trying to tease out meaning so much as intent; I can't figure out what she is trying to do in it, to the extent that I can't even see anything linking the five poems. I am seeing the connections between words (mainly via sound, in this case) but whatever deeper connections there may be behind the word-games aren't getting across to me. By contrast, in one of my favourite poems in the collection, "Hades Has Gone To Ground", I can freewheel happily along with a thought-line that involves Kore (Persephone as maiden goddess) getting thoroughly mixed up with core, as in apple. Hades, at a loose end during one of his consort's summer absences, is a curiously engaging character:
Hades didn't know what to do
so he bought a white sliced pan and tinned fruit
he enjoyed trips to the local-shop-cum-post-office
and really only wanted a stamp

My other big favourite would have to be "Parable of a Polish Émigré". This plays with words too - try working out the number of possible meanings in
the waves lap
note a lapse

but it goes beyond that to something deeper. The thought-line is there, but is the kind you react to before you analyse it.
The Polish woman said;

you can't abandon me
now that I am dead.

I must go home.
I have lived
in white cities
with stones
and birds
and tall people
and donkeys
The collection's title, Homesick at Home, indicates a sense of alienation, of not-belonging, which perhaps comes through most strongly in this poem but is elsewhere too. It does feel a bit like reading an émigré poet, though she is not one – unless, perhaps, she feels most at home in the country of words.