Review of Trace by Mary Robinson, pub. Oversteps Books 2020

Mary Robinson is here on her second collection, in which she shows that she has some interesting ideas of her own, particularly about imagery. It isn’t just that she can coin a striking image – though I especially liked her comparison of an iron ring, not the finger sort but more like a mooring ring, to “a hagoday to knock/on the earth’s sanctuary. (A hagoday, for those who like me would have to go online to find out, is a door-knocker on a place of sanctuary.) It is more that she has interesting things to say about the purpose of imagery. For instance, in “Beech Trees”, she opens with

          They remind me

     of those women
          who had been to Girton
                      or the Slade

From here on, you can forget the birch trees: the poem is wholly about a certain type of woman she recalls from her youth, and whom she evokes with a wealth of tender detail, from the “long grey hair” and “brown tweed skirts” to the cottages they turn into refuges for artists and poets. The birch trees do put in a brief appearance at the end:

                  It’s the way the trees are curious
          shapes and look down from the hill
     and do not think about themselves.

But essentially, the comparison object has completely taken over from the nominal subject of the poem – which is now not so much about beech trees as about what memories they stir in one particular person.

In another poem she attempts to find a word for “the sound of a dog’s paws/on frozen leaves”. She details exactly the immediate circumstances: the dog’s weight, how his movement disturbs the leaves, and the background of the chilly morning:

                    Far off to the south-east
     dawn burns. A heron studies the river.

But then, coming back to the sound, she tries and rejects various verbs like crunch, crack and snap before concluding

     It’s the sound of movement on a still morning,
     the sound of a dog’s paws on frozen leaves.

This premise, that sometimes exactitude is achieved not via one perfect word or image but via the building up of details and situation, strikes me as interesting and the polar opposite of those ill-advised creative writing manuals and lesson plans which would have us believe there is always a dead-right verb or noun that will eliminate any need for those despised chaps, the adjective and adverb. From the acknowledgements, it is clear she spends a lot of time in writing groups, but she is obviously capable of striking out beyond groupthink and doing things her way.

However…  It seems odd to say that one thinks a poet is too self-effacing, still odder to say she is too collaborative or too eager to credit influences, but I do have some such thought. It comes through in some of her title choices. The poem above, about the dog’s paws, is one of the best here, but its title, “You asked for a poem about listening”, does it less than justice, making it sound like an exercise. Another is titled “Poem with a phrase from Amy Clampitt”. The phrase in question, to judge by the italics, is “Nothing stays put”, and I really doubt Ms Clampitt would claim to be the inventor of that phrase or the only one who ever used it. Don’t get me wrong; I am all for poets acknowledging any borrowing, but this one could have been credited in a footnote, or still better, notes at the end of the book where they don’t impinge on the reader unless wanted. It didn’t need to be elevated to a title, as though the whole point of the poem had been to re-use this phrase.

Influences work best when they have been absorbed so far into the poet that they act almost unconsciously. Here, one senses that she feels a need for something to lean on, as if she hasn’t enough confidence yet in her own ideas. There is a sequence of poems about, and often in the voices of, various Shakespeare characters, “A Comonty”. These poems work best when they add something new -  Dorothy Wordsworth reflecting on Timon of Athens, or the poet herself re-reading the Merchant and recalling how it was taught at her school with no reference to

                    why there were Polish girls in class
     with long hair and longer names that plaited
     round the teacher’s tongue.

They work less well, for me, when they simply give a voice to a character who already had one.  There are times, too, when she tells us a bit too much about the writing process, as in  “Clustog fair”, where we learn that “I look up the Welsh for thrift”, and later “I read it is from the plumbago family”. This is to leave the scaffolding up, or the pencil lines on the painting. Again this feels like a lack of the confidence to go boldly in and just tell us what she now knows, rather than how she came by the knowledge.

To judge by the best poems here – I could mention also “daffodils da capo”, in which, as in others, she shows a refreshing willingness to experiment with lineation rather than being bound by left-hand justification all the time – she could well afford to be more self-assured about her own voice.

Review of Dead Men’s Sandals by David Wishart, independently published. 2020

“The litter lads pulled up outside Eutacticus’s gates. We de-chaired under the watchful eye of the gate-troll and carried on up the drive past topiaried hedges studded with serious bronzes and enough marble gods, goddesses and nymphs to equip a pantheon. Greek originals or specially commissioned, probably, the lot of them: in Sempronius Eutacticus’s case, crime didn’t only pay, it came with a six-figure annual bonus and an expense account you could’ve run a small province on.”

Some folk will know already that my favourite fictional detective is Marcus Valerius Corvinus, first-century AD aristocratic Roman layabout who has a distaste for the life of public service and self-aggrandizement expected of his class, and a penchant for furkling about in the dirty laundry of people who’d prefer it to stay hidden. He also talks a bit like a Raymond Chandler narrator.

Some of the Corvinus books are political; this is not. Corvinus owes a favour to a character we have met several times before, the crime cartel boss Eutacticus, who is not one to forget what he is owed. He sends Corvinus to Brundisium, to investigate the murder of the local crime boss there, who was a friend, in so far as Eutacticus had any. The dead man’s granddaughter had been engaged to the son of a long-time rival, in an apparent business deal to unite the two crime families, and it looks as if this might have led to his murder. But an extremely valuable antique ring he had given the prospective bride is also missing, and though Eutacticus wants to know its current whereabouts, he is oddly reticent about it. So is everyone else….

As usual there are plenty of suspects and Corvinus’s wife Perilla plays a major role in helping him think things through and discard various theories. Obviously, this being a whodunnit, I’m not about to give plot details away, but in fact there is an unusual twist to the solution, which requires the reader to rethink the words “guilt”, “justice” and “perpetrator”. Another interesting development is a woman heavily into Eastern religion. This is reminiscent of a character in the earlier book Family Commitments, Pomponia Graecina, who was festooned with amulets and talked to trees. Graecina is an historical person who would, somewhat later in life, be reputed to be among the earliest Roman Christians, and though the character in this book is a member of the cult of Isis, her inclusion does indicate a growing  movement away from Olympianism – not that Corvinus would be anywhere near as interested in that as he would in what the local wineshop is serving.

This series works for me as much because of the characters as the plots: Corvinus and his somewhat anarchic household are eminently believable and feel like friends by now. Also the books don’t mind tackling questions you don’t always expect to see in genre novels, as indicated above. Another and arguably even more daring example of this in the series is Solid Citizens, reviewed here.

One minor quibble: Wishart as usual does give us a list of characters, but given that his hero's name is Marcus, he could have made life a whole lot easier by not giving one of his crime dynasties the family name of Marcius and another character the personal name of Marcus.

A minor quibble indeed, given the gratitude I felt when the latest Corvinus came through the lockdowned door.
Local Hero

Review of Almarks: Radical Poetry From Shetland

Review of Almarks: Radical Poetry from Shetland, ed. Jim Mainland & Mark Ryan Smith, pub. Culture Matters 2020

Off Skyros at midnight
The heads of the little drowned children
Gently knock against the hulls of the yachts.
(Stuart Hannay)

This is an anthology of radical poems from living poets in Shetland, which at once raises the question of “what’s radical?” Jim Mainland’s introductory essay indicates that he takes it to refer both to subject matter and style.  This essay is a joy in itself; I shall treasure his demolition of the buzzword “virtue-signalling” - “surely the most linguistically flat-footed of insults – imagine Shakespeare coming up with something as weak as ‘take that, you virtue-signaller!’”.

It’s arguable that writing in dialect rather than “standard” English is itself radical, and not including  a glossary of dialect forms even more so. There are several poems in Shetlandic, and I found them accessible enough, but then I’ve been around the dialect for a while now. If you can follow Ola Swanson’s high-energy polemic on the locally controversial topic of windfarms, “Da Carbon Payback Kid’s Ill-wind Phantasmagoria”, you’ll be fine:

We tak in Windhoose, Flugga, an spend da night under dis baby,
     da crazed Shelthead telt me, an du widna want ta dae it too often.
     On migrations it’s a big bird windfeast
     o waarblers an laverick tongues in aspic
     an see whin a raingoose hits it’s lik instant
pâté, min.

     A wind-sooked inta-gridpooer guy gae me da wikiphysics
     but I already hed a lingerin o it fae da Bridders Grimm.
     Da whole rig set up a vibe an drave you gibberin ta money.

One thing that comes over as “radical” from this lively piece is how dialect can be employed on the most contemporary of themes, rather than being the preserve of folk song and nature poems. Laureen Johnson, in “March-past at Arromanches”, written after the 50th anniversary of D-Day (how time does fly), uses the dialect’s homeliness to cut through the pomp and ceremony:

     But oh, in every waddered face
     you see da eyes o boys.

And Beth Fullerton, harking back to a time when standard English was enforced in schools, feels an instant rapport with the poem “I Lost My Talk” by First Nations poet Rita Joe in Ottawa’s Museum of Nations. It’s possible that those whose native dialect is standard English will not appreciate fully the radicalism of “Tongue”, but Welsh, Scottish and Irish readers should have no bother:

     You tried to tak my midder tongue
     bit sho wis always dere
     beyond da riv
     o your horizon

Among the non-dialect poems, Raman Mundair’s “Let’s talk about a job” is memorable both for its subject matter (a job advert for an under-qualified, compliant doctor to work at an immigration detention facility in Louisiana) and its form, which is an unclassifiable but powerful melange of poetry, prose and drama. It’s also hard to quote from, because it uses a lot of repetition to build up a huge head of quiet but boiling anger. Its understated, matter-of-fact language is the antithesis of the ranting sometimes associated with “radical” poetry and far more effective. I would love to see it performed.

There’s only one poem by co-editor Jim Mainland, which is modest of him but a pity, I think, because he is in many ways one of the most radical writers in Shetland and any anthology of  contemporary radical Shetland poems that doesn’t include  his poem “Prestidigitator” has a serious lack.  There are also several images (I think mainly abstract paintings though some might be photos) by Michael Peterson, including the cover image reproduced here.

Declaration of interest: there are also three of mine here, but as usual I decided it was reasonable to review the rest of the anthology.

This being an anthology, the quality, as always, is variable. There are some pieces I like less than those above, and all readers will find that so – nor will the poems they like necessarily be the ones I like. But they should all find a lively, thought-provoking body of work from a great variety of artists. One radical aspect of this anthology is its inclusiveness: we have as many female writers as male, including a trans female writer, and though BAME voices are thin on the ground in Shetland, the most striking piece in the anthology is from an Indian-born Shetlander, Raman Mundair.  An almark, by the way, is a sheep that habitually breaks bounds. It’s a good word.


Review of Veritas: Poems after Artemisia by Jacqueline Saphra, pub. Hercules Editions 2020

A woman paints herself

There could scarcely be a more suitable project for Hercules Editions, with their emphasis on poetic/artistic collaboration, than this sonnet redoublé (or heroic crown) riffing on fifteen paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, each sonnet opposite its generating painting.

Gentileschi’s habit of using herself as a model lends itself to autobiographical interpretation, and one thing that comes over very clearly from her paintings is strength: not only her Judiths and Jaels but her Danaes and Lucretias are powerfully built, with determination in every line of their faces, nobody’s pushovers. Lucretia, as the poem on “her” painting remarks, is not aiming her blade, in the approved manner, at her own heart; rather she is pointing it away from herself, as if wondering at whom it might more usefully be aimed, and this cannot but remind us that Artemisia, in the same situation, had no use for suicide; she rebuilt her life on her own terms.

                                                         I tilt
     the handle, angle it upwards, as if to taste
     the salt of vengeance. Hmmm. Who could I kill?

It’s interesting that her parents named her, not after some saint or virtue (like her mother Prudencia) but for a pre-christian queen who personally commanded a battle fleet. Her father Orazio doesn’t always get the best press, but he does at least seem to have recognised and fostered her talent. She, however, is the one who works out how to “build the brand/and market it”. Despite the need to please patrons and public taste, she comes over, both in the paintings and these poems, as totally in control, taking control both of her signature subject matter and her interpretation of it – “she’ll pick her story, choose the way to spin it”.

This being so, one can see the reason for the choice of form. A crown of sonnets is fiendishly complex; an heroic crown even more so: the poet must begin at the end, with the master sonnet, and then construct the other 14 to a pattern whereby the first sonnet begins with the first line of the master sonnet and ends with the second, beginning a chain; the second sonnet begins with the second line of the master and ends with the third and so on until the 14th sonnet begins with the 14th line of the master and ends with the first, completing the chain. Ideally each of the first 14 sonnets examines some aspect of the theme while the master, at the end, brings them together.

The trick, of course, is to ensure that all the key lines still make sense in fifteen different contexts, and even with slight variations it isn’t easy. In some ways it is more like architecture than writing and demands a high degree of control which seems eminently well fitted to this subject, a woman rewriting her own story, arranging and shaping the material of her life to suit herself. Ekphrastic poems don’t always work for me if all they do is describe what I can already see in the painting; there needs to be a degree of reinterpretation, so that one ends up seeing more in the painting. In “Susannah and the Elders” we hear Susannah’s voice (or is it Artemisia’s, thinking in her person?) defining exactly what is going on, in terms that seem to telescope three time periods, Susannah’s, Artemisia’s and our own:

     The elder puts his finger to his lips. Hush!
     Silence, fear and shame; the go-to tricks
     to nail a woman: timeless, quick, no need
     for force. But this one doesn’t go to plan.

There is a dry, dark humour about many of these poems, which again sounds fitting for this tough, practical woman: the “well-overdressed” Angel Gabriel of “The Annunciation”, the “giant infant’s rump” of “Virgin and Child with a Rosary”, the satyr who is left looking foolish as he clutches the fleeing Corisca’s false hairpiece, the golden rain of “Danae":

                                   Between her thighs
     the coins line up, like she’s a slot machine
     gone wrong.

This sequence is a terrific technical achievement, making a nonsense of the notion, still oddly prevalent, that poems in strict form are stilted or mechanical – these couldn’t be livelier. But what makes them memorable is the way they use the paintings to find a way into a life which was of its time, yet transcended its “age of limits”.

Review of Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead by Karen Lee Street, pub. Point Blank 2020

Let’s begin with the potential problems and explain why they don’t exist. This is the third in a trilogy, the first two of which I have not read. Did it matter? No, not in the least. The story is free-standing in itself; the characters from earlier books soon establish themselves and any necessary background is conveyed naturally and without sounding like a lecture on What Happened Before You Came In.

Secondly, the narrator is Edgar Allan Poe and the other principal character is his fictional detective Auguste Dupin. Had I read The Murders in the Rue Morgue?  I had not, and in fact know very little of Poe’s life. Again, it didn’t matter. No doubt those who are better informed will find an extra dimension to the tale, but essentially what we have here is an historical whodunnit, though the question is not actually so much whodunnit as how they dunnit and whether they can be apprehended before they do anything worse. And anyone who enjoys hist fic and detective fic will be well capable of enjoying this.

Our narrator, whatever his historical provenance, comes alive very well: a man keenly aware of the world around him, grieving for the recent death of his young wife, gamely trying to stick to a pledge of abstinence from drink, sensitive to environments and atmospheres, with a dry wit. The narrative actually begins with his own impending death and then goes into flashback, a stylistic trick that shifts the reader’s interest from “what happens next” to “how do we get from A to Z?”, and which works particularly well in a narrative where many will already know what happens at Z. The beginning of the flashback – his narrative of how he got from A to Z – sees him in his garden, in surroundings that would be idyllic were they not empty of his dead wife:

     The cherry and apple blossoms had flurried down weeks previously and there were nubs of fruit on the boughs as spring ambled into summer. The foliage was still a tender green and rain in the night had scented the air with the richness of loam. I examined the wildflower garden I had planted in the shade under my wife Virginia’s guidance

Poe is by no means the only historical (or fictional) character to put in an appearance; one of the most entertaining scenes in the novel involves a literary salon where we run into George Sand, Eugène Sue and a rather irritating mouthy young poet who idolises Poe and whose first name is Charles….  But this is a novel where locations are as important as people. The “empire of the dead” is the tunnels and catacombs beneath Paris, where much of the action takes place. This is a promising location, and the Poe who reacted so keenly to the beauty of his own garden is as acute on these more sinister surroundings:

   Golden light shimmered along the bleak walls, but our four lanterns did little to dispel the malevolent atmosphere. Sounds were amplified: pattering feet, the flutter of wings, chatters and squeaks—sounds that might fill one with the joy of nature in a woodland or some attractive city park, but evoked nothing but dread in this tomb-like space.

The solution to this mystery depends partly on something that might loosely be called supernatural, though it’s perhaps more correctly described as a bit of steampunk science. For anyone who feels uncomfortable with non-natural explanations, there is the odd hint that Poe’s abstinence regime may not be quite as strict as he claims, and that alcohol has a powerful effect on him. But in a genre where historical and fictional characters walk down the same streets, not to mention very creepy subterranean passages, suspension of disbelief does tend to be easier than, say, in kitchen-sink drama.  The most important thing about a whodunnit, in whatever sub-genre, is that it should be a page-turner, which this is. But it also helps to have engaging characters and a fluent writing style, as this does. Our narrator’s voice is not pastiche Poe but does sound a completely credible voice for someone of his time and place.
Do somethin' else!

Review of The Poor Rogues Hang by Thomas Tyrrell, pub. Mosaique Press 2020

I should perhaps state an interest at the start: I have had an unhealthy fascination with the history of pirates for many years, so could be expected to take an interest in a pamphlet of 17 poems on famous pirates. Those here are mostly, though not all, based on some of the pirates recorded in his General History of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson, who may or may not have been Daniel Defoe.

There is a considerable variety of forms among these poems, including sapphics and a sonnet, though many are closely or loosely based on the ballad form. This is a massively tempting form for poets; nothing looks easier to write than a ballad, and indeed nothing is easier to write than a bad one. At its best, it is a tight, spare form that uses few words to make much impact and has a rhythm that is at once both memorable and easy to speak. But it can easily become rhyme-led and galumphing. I don’t think Tyrrell always avoids this danger, particularly in those poems that follow the ballad form most closely, “A Frightful Ballad of the Third Lord Boyce” and “Of Captain Avery”. Their abcb quatrains are often on the edge of sounding like pastiches of a bygone form, rather than modern riffs on it

 By contrast, “Of Graínne Ni Mháile” and “Anne Bonny to Captain Johnson”, which use the ballad’s techniques of repetition and musicality but tweak the form quite a lot, sound much more authentic. Anne’s ballad, with its rollicking anapaests and light rhyme linking the verses, picks up on Johnson’s comparison of her and Mary Read’s story to a “Novel or Romance”:

     Ah, Captain Johnson, our lives
     were no mere amatorious novel,
     unlike your Roxanas, Clarindas
     and such drabs of the bookseller’s stall.

     I was pirate and woman and all,
     and I sailed with and lay with Jack Rackham,
     who, if he had fought like a man,
     need not have been hanged like a dog.

There is also from time to time an amusing correlation between subject and form: Mary Read’s sapphics:

     Anne, mad Anne, the girl that I stole from Rackham,
     know this now: however my death shall claim me
     our last stand is all that my heart could wish for,
     fighting together

and “Of Major Bonnet”, whose name inevitably suggests a sonnet. The image of Stede Bonnet bored in retirement and longing for “mad romance” is captivating; it also perhaps highlights a problem with this subject-matter. Much as I admire the enterprise of the pirates, not to mention their democratic leanings and rudimentary health insurance, it cannot be denied that they were basically maritime burglars, who quite often added murder, torture and rape to their crimes. When Ned Low is described as “the only pirate not to have/a redeeming feature”, I can’t help thinking Tyrrell is over-romanticising the trade as a whole. Low was by no means the only sadist on the block – what about Montbars, known as the Exterminator, and Nau l’Ollonois? – but  even  those with what he calls “the swashbuckling romanticised/look” could be vicious enough when the need arose.

Granted, the respectable folk were behaving no better: in “Pieces of Eight” there is an image of the Spanish treasure-ships full of the gold mined at the cost of human misery

     Pirates and privateers
     circle them like sharks

which subtly and skilfully recalls the way real sharks followed slave-trading vessels, waiting for discarded corpses.  Indeed the collection’s title comes from a line in the ballade “The Last Speech of the Condemned Pirate”, “The poor rogues hang; the rich rogues thrive.”  I think it’s arguable that the ballade’s envoi weakens its point by comparing its pirate speaker to Charles I, a rich rogue who did end up on a block, but the general point stands. And there is no doubt that the appeal of these deplorable but irresistible characters continues, as RLS forecast it would: those of us who are finding our lives dull are always going to be tempted at least to read about free spirits, if hopefully not to join them. As Major Bonnet muses, “there’s always piracy”….

Review of Cargo of Limbs by Martyn Crucefix with photographs by Amel Alzakout, pub Hercules Editions

crossing the liminal
     places of the homeless

Those who accuse poetry of failing to engage with current concerns do not really understand the process whereby events and concerns are transmuted into poetry. Disparate things come together and meld into something new, stirred round in what mediaeval Welsh bards called Ceridwen’s cauldron.  This osmosis takes time, but the material of what might be called the mass migration question, the steady westward stream of refugees and poor folk trying to better themselves, is just about ready now and is surfacing in many a collection.

Crucefix’s long poem came about in just this way: two quite separate experiences playing off each other. In 2016, the poet listens to a reading of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book 6 of The Aeneid, but finds the pictures in his head are not of the banks of Acheron but the shores of the Mediterranean, with the bodies washed up thereon, in particular that of three-year-old Alan Kurdi (the name at the time was widely reported as Ayan or Aylan but is indeed Alan).

So a world-famous photograph and a reading, a mythical river and a real sea, a classical poet and his twentieth-century translator, a morally quite dubious hero and the most innocent of small boys all blend in the cauldron. The result is a rethinking of the moment in the Aeneid where our hero, accompanied by his priestess guide, arrives at the bank where dead souls congregate in hopes of being ferried over but are only allowed into Charon’s boat if they have had their funeral rites. The others, the “resourceless” as Virgil calls them, are stranded between worlds and Aeneas, not always the most compassionate man, pities their plight.

In this version the priestess, appropriately for a book of both poems and photographs, becomes a “lensman”, and Aeneas is Andras, a credible Middle European-ish name  - and here I must dissent from Choman Hardi’s introduction, which identifies him with a demon of that name. There does indeed seem to be an Andras in the demonology, who commands thirty legions of demons, but this is surely pure coincidence, of which the poet may well not even have been aware. Andras here is just a name that happens to sound vaguely like Aeneas, and this Andras’s outburst at the end of the poem is purely human:

Suppose I know –
     even from what lives
     these wretches come –
     from what wretched plight

     out of what violence
     to want this – pay for this –
     say by what rule
     by what moral right

     does any man here let
     some pass and some pushed
     back into the night
     no less fraught than

     the cold and lethal waters
     these others scrum
     to risk their lives upon…

It is essentially the same question Aeneas asks – “how is it decided who are to retreat from the bank and who are to be conveyed?” But the tone of perplexed curiosity in his voice has here been replaced by frustration and anger. And the identity of the “sullen boatman” is more fluid. When he
     elects one but not another
     leaves the remainder
     he shoves them aside
     rescues as he condemns
then clearly on one level this modern Charon is a people-smuggler, risking these unfortunates’ lives for the money they pay him. But the phrase “any man here” invites us to consider others who make choices – immigration officials, politicians, those who elect them – and the degree of their/our responsibility.

The photographs, so appropriate in a poem partly inspired by a famous photograph, were taken by Amel Alzakout in unusual circumstances. She herself, in 2015, travelled from Izmir in Turkey to Lesbos in a smuggler’s small boat. She was determined to film the journey but had to do so secretly, with a camera concealed in her sleeve, as smugglers are unsurprisingly shy of being filmed. Halfway across, the boat collapsed but she filmed on until rescue came.

The result is photographs that capture the surreptitiousness and haste of the enterprise, fleeting moments filmed from odd angles, over people’s shoulders, so that one feels part of the scene in which she found herself. Forty-two people on that boat died in the water; had she been among them, we should have lost not only a talented artist but a most unusual and striking record, which echoes and complements the moving, restrained cadences of the poem.

It’s an odd title for a press, this Hercules Editions. Hercules was a hulking dimwit with no style or delicacy: the books I have seen from this press are tiny, beautifully crafted jewels. At the end of this one, Andras is sufficiently moved by what he sees to stop his cameraman filming. His reaction is understandable but misguided;, for just as Amel Alzakout’s shots give us a unique insight into her journey, so the words in which Crucefix commemorates the “great cargo of limbs” crossing the ocean humanises them and brings them closer to us.

Review of Between the Islands by Philip Gross, pub. Bloodaxe 2020

              We’re on the edge
 more often than we think

Piers, shores, gangplanks, a temporary road over an iced-up sea, a land bridge drowned in a tsunami. All very liminal, and behind all these edges, a consciousness of the threshold between the living and the dead.
The sea which dominates this collection is literal as well as metaphorical: at the end of “Three Fevers and a Fret” it speaks, angrily, of what is being done to it:

                Listen. Catch the glitter-swish
      of shoals switching grey-silver-grey to
     off. The shiver-to-stillness of the coral
     bleaching. The slow spreading of the spill
     to pools of silence.  The hundred-mile spool
     of whale song snapped. I have no words for you.

The inspired line break that throws such a weight on the word “off” in that quote reminds us that Gross is a poet to whom the niceties of technique are important. The title poem is a sequence of fifteen variant sonnets. It isn’t a crown of sonnets, but the last, elongated, line of each is broken in the middle and the first rhyme of each picks up on the last word before the break in the last. Thus, for instance, no. 9 ends

 over water. Are you ready… Can you hear
This, slowly, in stuttering Morse. The pause
                                   before Yes. Loud and clear.

while no 10 begins

     The edge of things. Grey swell, imploding, draws
     curtains of spray.

Those punning drawn curtains remind us further that Gross, even when writing of the most serious subjects, is by nature linguistically playful and fortunately never tries to suppress this.  His wry epitaph for Brighton’s West Pier (Nocturne with a View of the Pier) is both gently humorous and oddly moving, as humour can often be.

     Always the other one, the lesser, West Pier Minor….
     The one famous thing he did was to burn.
     To stand up in a body of smoke. Then we turned.

     We still talk about him, sporting his new uniform of flame.

Nevertheless, this is at root a meditative collection, haunted and haunting. It often sounds edgily relevant and contemporary – the Somerset Levels, “chafed by long drainage”, waiting “for the sea to return, to be healed”. This is a surely intentional reference to the flooding of recent years, but the uncanny contemporary relevance of “the kingdom of Quarantine” –fever-struck ships seeing “the docks/they can’t reach” – must be serendipitous, the result not of trying to be au fait with the latest news but of addressing universal concerns that keep cropping up in new forms, like the “same-and-changing sea shapes”. His list of rocky islets in the Scillies:

     Hanjague, Menavaur,
     Ganninick, Crebawathan, Rosevean, Gorregan,

is reminiscent of the shipping forecast, that litany so often compared to a prayer. This collection takes a lot of reading; like its central image it is slippery, many-faceted and yields more each time you go back to it.

Review of Scion by Sue Rose, pub. Cinnamon 2020

The past beneath the skin

It has often been noted that “ancestry” is an interest that grows on us as we ourselves draw closer to becoming a part of history. As older generations die off, and we grow accustomed to being the older generation, with, moreover, plenty to remind us that our bodies too are ageing, it becomes more natural to see ourselves not just as individuals but as a point on a long line.

The particular heritage in this collection is Jewish, and this fact informs many of the poems, perhaps most memorably “Tracks”, in which Rose sees an elderly Jewish man boarding a train and reflects that

  He will settle himself on a seat
     to the sound of a whistle,
     unfold a paper or open a novel
     by Wiesel and exit any time
     he likes. He can call the shots
     on his passage; he can alight.

It is also relevant to the “godless, faithless” authorial voice’s self-questioning about who exactly she is and where on this line she belongs: one may discard a great deal about one’s heritage and still be shaped by it. Hence the Yiddish dialect words that recur throughout the poems; there is a glossary at the end, but I don’t think most readers will need it, for this is a strand of language familiar to most of us via the screen and the page if not in our own lives. In this sense it is part of our heritage too, and indeed throughout the book it is commonality rather than difference that emerges. Though the old gentleman in “Tracks” can indeed exit the actual train when he chooses, journeys in a poem can hardly help being metaphorical as well as actual, and in that sense he and the rest of us are all bound for the same inescapable terminus. The poems about bereavement, the loss of those ahead of us on the path, are universal in their relevance, perhaps especially those addressed to a still-living sister:

     “Let us rejoice”, hands joined
     in a chain of family and not,
     spinning, kicking, other hands
     dropping until it is just you and me,
     clasped hands thrown into the air up
     and down and up, chopping through
     the song, eyes on each other, joy
     and pain, all our dead here
     at our backs  (“Hava Nagila”)

It should be noted that “haunted by time and death” in a collection does not necessarily mean “depressing”. Rose has always been adept at leavening serious themes with humour, as in “On Redundancy”, her wry farewell to various malfunctioning bodily organs,

     surplus parts that relinquish

     their hold on the pith
     of our anatomy grudgingly
     when pared from their home.

And the missed relatives are not merely losses but presences, their place in the line anchored by lively memories of their personalities.  The “jubilant man of mirrors/and romance”, the woman singing “a beat behind the radio”, with many others, both crowd and enliven these poems. An interesting motif that runs through this collection is trees. From the World Ash of Norse myth onwards, trees become images for human activity, and the last poem in the book, “This Time”, sees the narrator walking through long avenues of trees that “lead to infinity”. In one way they are emblematic of the human bloodlines with which the collection has been so concerned, but they also take things beyond the human, to an oddly reassuring timescale of centuries.