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Review of Family Commitments by David Wishart, independently published 2017



"Gods! Well, you know that’s the way the empire works – selling off unwanted kids to clear a debt is standard practice among the poorer classes throughout the empire, but when it’s your own major-domo that you’ve known for years who’s telling you that, and in Bathyllus’s matter of fact tones, it stops you in your tracks. Sure, I knew that old Grandpa Marcus had bought him fifty-odd years back in Pergamum and taken him to Rome but that was as far as it went.

“What about your mother? I said.
 “She was dead, sir. In childbirth, two years previously."
 “Ah.” There wasn’t much more I could say, really."

As I’ve mentioned before, I am doing some catch-up reviews for David Wishart’s Corvinus books because I discovered some fans weren’t getting to hear about the latest ones since he left his publisher. In this, one of his best recent ones, Bathyllus, as you can see, takes centre stage when his past catches up with him in the shape of Damon, a long-lost brother. The two have led very different lives and it shows; Damon, though physically very like his brother, has had a harder and more uncertain time and survived it by becoming somewhat of a chancer. He is currently in dire danger because his equally chancy master has been murdered for a valuable item, which his killers did not find on him and which they now assume is in Damon’s hands. Corvinus’s best chance of helping Bathyllus keep him alive is to find the murderers.

We shall meet some old friends in this one, like inveterate gossip Caelius Crispus, Corvinus’s pal Gaius Secundus (complete with a brand-new wife) and cartel boss Eutacticus, if you can call someone a friend who keeps moray eels rather than goldfish and intimates that he might not be averse to feeding you to them. Also some new faces, notably Pomponia Graecina, whom Corvinus approaches for advice when the case starts to turn political, and who gives him a bit of a surprise:

"She was in the garden, standing chatting to a smallish, thin-branched tree with narrow leaves and sprays of pinkish-white flowers.

Right. Chatting. To a tree.

Uh-huh.

She turned towards me […] I noticed she was wearing as many amulets draped around her neck as would equip a stall outside one of the more popular temples."

Pomponia, as it happens, may be a sucker for New Age superstitions but she has a keen mathematical brain. She was a real person, who would later be one of Rome’s first reputed Christians.

As well as being amusing, this one is intermittently rather moving, as our long-term friend Bathyllus’s back-story becomes clearer. The personal and the political also become interestingly mixed up. The case gets satisfyingly murky before Corvinus manages to get to the bottom of things and find some sort of resolution. Oh, and along the way he also has to do a small job for his mother, who fears her ancient husband, Corvinus’s stepfather Priscus, may be having an affair….

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Review of Larksong Static: Selected Poems 2005-2020 by Martin Malone, pub. Hedgehog Press



Skimming the poem titles in the early part of this Selected – Barbury Castle, Red Kites at Uffington, Wood on the Downs – you might easily file Malone as a poet of place. And indeed there is a strong element of that in him, as evidenced by the incantatory lists of place-names:

     We have been here before. Uffington, Hackpen,
     Grim’s Ditch, Ogbourne St.George, Wayland’s Smithy,
     Sparshott Firs, Bishopstone and Barbury (“Wood on the Downs”)


In fact, though, it soon becomes clear that the landscape is a backdrop, albeit a sharply and lovingly observed one- in the title (a phrase from the opening poem) “static” is a noun, not an adjective; the lark-song a buzz at the back of the soundtrack. What is really at the heart of these early poems is the development of the relationships played out against the landscape:

     You, me and your son
     and the best kite on the hill.
     Passing around the string, sharing the pull
     of possibility, we are shaken;
     shuddering through the kite-tail spine
     of ourselves, alone in the moment’s blue
     latitude. I look from boy to you
     with some sense of new gravities.
     An inkling load guyed skyward, upon
     the caught breath of an idea murmured
     into your ear: you, me, us. (“Best Kite On The Hill”)


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Review of The Midnight Swan by Catherine Fisher, pub. Firefly Press 2020



Please don’t feel upset. I was so sure the alchemist in Wolverhampton would be the answer to your problem and it was such a shame that he blew himself up just before I got to speak to him. But don’t despair, dear brother! We will get you back to your human shape!

Not surprisingly, the Clockwork Crow is less than reassured by this letter from his brother Enoch. This is the third book in the Clockwork Crow trilogy: as we begin, the enchanted Crow is still trying to regain his human form, the Tylwyth Teg (you can call them fairies if you like, but it doesn’t convey their alien-ness or malevolence) are still trying to get into Plas y Fran, the house they view as theirs, and Seren, the orphan girl taken in by the family who live there, is still wondering exactly what her position in the household is and whether she can feel secure.

The acid-tongued, cantankerous Crow is on excellent form – witness his story about the young woman for whom his fancy, years ago, was the start of his troubles:

     “What happened to the young lady?” Tomos asked suddenly, as if he had been thinking over the story. “The one who asked for the rose?”
     The Crow scowled. “She married a farmer. And I dare say she deserved it.”

The Crow, Seren and Tomos have to venture into the otherworld again to complete a quest which promises to give the Crow what he needs, and it is as scary and beguiling a place as ever. Seren, meanwhile has her own worries and desires:

     But the hare didn’t answer at all. And when Seren looked into its eyes she saw they were filled with the silver light of the moon and for a moment all she wanted to do was stay there too, and stare and stare at the alien cratered surface, so that its brilliant light filled all her eyes and her head and her brain and…
      “Seren!” Tomos whispered. [..]
      Seren followed but she couldn’t help looking back. The hare had not moved. And if it could see into the future…
      “Are they going to send me away?” she whispered.
      The hare’s eyes were pools of moonlight. For a moment she thought it hadn’t heard her but then it said softly, “There is no such place as away”.


One of the little verses that serve as chapter epigraphs reads “Wish for love, wish for treasure/wish for someone else’s pleasure”. There is a moral dimension to the story, not in the sense of a clunking Victorian children’s novel but reminiscent of the much-missed TV quest-game Knightmare, in which it was literally impossible to win unless you were prepared to be altruistic. It becomes clear that this quest too cannot be won unless people sometimes put the interests of others before their own; there may be no such place as away but there is certainly such a thing as society.

The fact that this is a pacy, terrific page-turner will come as no surprise to those who have read The Clockwork Crow and The Velvet Fox. As usual, I read it for the first time at breakneck pace, desperate to find out what happened next and how it ended, and then had to go back and take things more slowly, to savour the spellbinding prose. It’s a fitting end to a fine series.

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Review of The Book of Revelation by Rob A Mackenzie, pub. Salt 2020

One slight caveat first: apart from the obvious influence on this collection of the last book of the Bible, according to the back cover it also owes a debt to a pop group called The Fall and its lead singer. This angle I can’t comment on, having no knowledge of them.

The Bible, however, is another matter; many will recall reading the highly figurative, visionary, freewheeling language of Revelation in a state of bemusement, wondering what exactly the author was on at the time. Mackenzie’s collection begins with a long sequence of poems, each with a quotation from Revelation as epigraph, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is a very modern take on the text which inspired it. The first poem, “Chapter 1”, with its epigraph “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’ (v.8)” sets the ultra-contemporary idiom:
 

                                                   Nothing
    matters if all of it matters more
    or less equally to everybody.
    No matter! Mark the epoch
    of lips and tits. Which are
    more popular with your
    target group? Or mark
    the apocalypse with
    twats on Twitter,
    you decide! The
    people have
    spoken. By
    refer end
    dumdum
    dum di
    dum
    du
    d

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Review of The Night Jar by Louise Peterkin, pub. Salt 2020

       I open the Night Jar

      The taut lid turning makes the noise of a rock
     revolving on the ground.

      I collect the materials of the small hours

- for the eponymous Night Jar is not a nightjar but a jar where the ingredients of night are kept. This agreeable surprise sets the tone for some lively what-ifs: a nun escaping to the circus, Jonah’s whale telling the story from its point of view. But there are also poems grounded very firmly in reality, like the deceptively titled “Siren Song”, in which a relationship that began romantically has dwindled into boredom. It’s surprisingly hard to convey boredom in a poem without actually being boring, and I don’t know that I have seen it done more skilfully than here:

      Oh God make something happen. Anything
     to break the drone of the morning,
     the buzz-cut of flies, the neighbours mowing.
     The television casts mutely an actress, gesticulating
     like a lobster held aloft by a chef. You flip
     through your supplement with a slow tenderness.
     You’re mumbling something . . .
     the merits of sustainable trout fishing.

The insistent -ing line-endings do a great job of conveying the woman’s boredom to the readers without actually inflicting it on them.  This is a first collection, but it doesn’t feel like one; it is both more technically adept and more assured than most debuts.
 

It also has a sharp sense of humour. I don’t often laugh aloud at poems, but I did at “Perfume”, about some children’s cack-handed attempt to make perfume out of garden flowers as a gift for their mothers, who doubtless had to accept the resulting malodorous sludge with feigned delight. The success lies in knowing exactly where to stop; namely before we see the mothers’ reaction: the comic timing is exact.
 

Not all of her more outré images work for me; I’m not entirely convinced by “faint arcs of gore under each nail/ as if I had been playing a black pudding piano” (“Renfield”). And there are poems, like “For Ratatouille”, where I’m just not sure what her aim is - I presume I’m not actually meant to feel sorry for cooked peppers, and I can’t see what else the poem might be trying to do. I suspect it might be a result of the pernicious theory that “there must be a poem” in every trivial incident.  Nor will every reader manage to catch every allusion – this is very allusive poetry, mining especially the fields of cinema and fairytale. But this shouldn’t matter when the poems work on their own, which they mostly manage by doing some re-imagining, as in the voice of the worker in “The Snow Queen’s Factory”:

     Days went by in an opiate whirr of machinery.
     Someone had tightened the vice of the night
     so morning and home time
     were the same slice of monochrome.

I found this a lively, ambitious first collection with, already, a voice of its own and plenty to say.

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Review of Miriam, Daniel and Me by Euron Griffith, pub. Seren Books 2020

"The driver started the engine and the Ford Anglia pulled off. In the mirror, Miriam watched Pantglyn fall away like something suddenly cut loose. They were going to pick up the suitcases to go on their honeymoon. Daniel had booked a weekend in London.
 On the Saturday he took her to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play Arsenal."

Griffith is not a new writer; he has published four novels in Welsh (one for children) and a short story collection in English, The Beatles in Tonypandy (Dean Street Press 2017). I still recall reading the title story of that collection, back in his student days, and wondering if I’d ever read a funnier or more inventive long short story. This, however, is his first novel in English, concerning three generations of a North Wales family.

 Given his previous experience, it isn’t altogether surprising that his narrative techniques provide a lot of the interest, two of them in particular. The story is not linear; it switches back and forth between generations quite a lot and hence between points of view – the “me” of the title, Daniel and Miriam’s son, is a first-person narrator of what he himself sees, but other people’s experiences are told in close-third. The switches of time and viewpoint may at first seem arbitrary but are in fact carefully orchestrated; their effect is that we see events first and only later find out what lay behind them; we meet people but then get to know them better. For instance, we learn that Miriam’s friend Leah was proposed to in a rather odd and unexpected way; only much later do we find out why – rather as she may have done herself.
 

In addition, the chapters are very short. Few extend over more than three pages; many are shorter, one is half a page. They are vignettes, brief glimpses into people’s lives. The net effect of both this and the non-linear narration is to create the effect of autobiography, of a person finding out about his past via family anecdotes and disconnected memories and later filling the story out with information he finds elsewhere. I don’t know, incidentally, whether the story is in fact autobiographical, nor do I think it matters; the point is to create the effect of autobiography, which these techniques succeed well in doing. Only in chapter 51, where we are temporarily misdirected about the identity of someone who has died, did I feel the device was misdirection for its own sake.
 

The boy-narrator (unless I missed it, we never do learn his name) grows up in the sixties and the protests against the 1969 investiture of Charles as prince of Wales play a part in the narrative. The atmosphere and idiom of the period are well evoked; he has the details off pat, the right TV programmes, cars, wished-for toys, and this accuracy inclines me to believe he has the details of the earlier periods, which I can’t vouch for personally, right as well. It doesn’t sound like knowledge he had to “research”, either (which is of course how research in fiction ought to come across). The child-voice is convincing too.
 

One warning: if you are one of those readers, and I count myself among them, who would rather avoid any fictional depiction of cruelty to animals, you will want to skip chapters 29 and 49. This is easily done. They are self-contained, concern a minor character and avoiding them will not materially affect your reading of the novel. I don’t say they are completely irrelevant; they are probably there to establish gritty rural realism or whatever, but I wouldn’t say they were essential either.
 

Running alongside Miriam’s actual story is one that never happened, a direction her life might have taken but didn’t. This fades as her real life takes over but resurfaces at the end, in a conclusion which is the more moving for not being wistful or sentimental: things are as they are and it is pointless to idealise what might have been at the expense of what was.
 

By the way, if you can still get hold of his short story collection. The Beatles in Tonypandy, pub. Dean Street Press 2016, and there’s a kindle edition as well, do!  That title story is still one of the most entertaining I’ve ever read.
 

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Review of The Tin Lodes by Andy Brown and Marc Woodward, pub. Indigo Dreams Publishing 2020

A stream
              a sprinkling
                 from separate sources

Here’s a collection of poems co-authored by two poets living on opposite sides of the River Teign. It begins in the region of the river, then radiates out to other waters both national and international. It is as interested in the banks as the water, and in the lives lived out on them:

The ferry plies its trade across the harbour;
small queues grow and vanish on opposing shores.

A frequent technique in the early poems is to blur time periods, as if the river holds them all in its memory at once:

a conclave of waders watch a Bronze Age
fisherman navigate his coracle

over to a niche in the rocks. He chants
his hunting prayer and parts a veil
of seaweed to reveal cormorant squabs

awaiting a parent and fish for their gullets.
Downstream the overflow pipe lets slip

its secret, jarring song into the sea.

This collapsing of time happens too in the central “Tin Lodes” sequence, where the old stannary chimneys become

weathered coastal sentries in spring sunshine
that could have been the ruins of Mycenae

and in coinages like “Mr Pytheas, the Marseilles merchant” for Pytheas of Massilia, the first to trade in Cornish tin for the Roman empire.

The vocabulary of these poems is often specialised: obviously place-names and species-names are important and sometimes become incantatory; the languages of trades, like tin-mining, and of botany and geology also figure heavily. Mostly this just makes things more interesting, though there are times when it sounds a bit too much like a scientific article – at the second mention of “kaolinitic”,  it did strike me that this was probably a word you could only get away with once in a book of poems. There are also a great many dialect words – there’s a glossary at the back, which is just as well. This isn’t quite the same as writing in dialect, which would also involve grammar and sentence structure; it’s more the replacement of individual standard English words with dialect equivalents.  Again, this is mostly fine but occasionally looks overdone, as if the words were being searched for. Actually, in one short poem, “The Dark Acre”, they clearly have been: the poem reads like an exercise in replacing all the standard nouns and most of the adjectives. This poem is in a short sequence called “Tributaries” and I would guess the idea is to illustrate how local cultures merge and broaden, like the tributaries of a river, eventually flowing into a supra-national ocean.

Another aim would seem to be to show what rivers, oceans, waters in general, have meant to people over the centuries: trade, communication, barriers, danger, escape. The final poem, “My River”, spends most of its time telling us what it is not; not “Alice Oswald’s Dart, or Wordsworth’s Thames,/or Raymond Carver’s river that he loved”. The implication being that everyone has his or her own river, their own path to the ocean, a suggestion reinforced by the poem that impressed itself on me most strongly, “Beach Huts”. In this, an old lady has gone missing, or at least not been seen for some time. “Police believed she’d gone to Birmingham”, that most land-locked of cities, but in spring, when facilities are cleaned out and renovated, it turns out that she has found a better place to die, in a beach hut, presumably looking out to sea, her fist “locked around the key”.

As Melville observed, water has a powerful pull on us: "Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life”. For me, the poems work best when they foreground this atavistic fascination. There are moments when I could wish to be less conscious of the research; facts and information, intriguing as they often are, sometimes drown out the sound of the river for me. But moments, too, when it comes through very clearly:

Now, into this brackish reach
the tide is running. Sliding through underwater grass,
current tracers in the blind depth,
I can sense them – the eels are coming…

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Review of Allegation by R G Adams, pub. Riverrun (Quercus Editions) 2020




Kit, a young social worker, and Vernon, her mentor, are in a meeting with legal adviser Sue about a difficult case. Vernon, in his sixties, is getting a bit jaded with officialese:


"Vernon briefed Sue Sullivan while they waited for the Coopers to arrive. Kit handed her a copy of the proposed supervised contact agreement and she scanned it.
‘They’re going to want mother supervising contact. That’s going to be a major sticking point. Why don’t you trust her to do it?’
‘She’s arsey,’ Vernon replied.
‘Right. Or as we will perhaps put it, we don’t feel we can rely on her cooperation as yet.’
‘That’s it.’"

It is this kind of dialogue which tells you at once that you are listening to an author who knows whereof they speak.  Its easy assurance reminded me of Mike Thomas’s police procedural novels, and this novel is indeed also set in South Wales, but here for “police” read “social workers with special responsibility for childcare”.  Kit and Vernon spend their days trying to protect children, knowing that if they read one of their overload of cases wrong, they will be crucified by the press for either breaking up a family or failing a child.

Kit has been assigned a case that is really beyond her experience, because her department is understaffed and what staff there are, tend to burn out and go sick. A man has been accused of abusing two young girls over a decade ago. Since then, he has married and had three children, one of whom is the same age his accusers then were, hence the interest of social services. To make matters still more tricky, he and his family are educated, articulate middle-class with influential connections, not the sort to be overawed by authority.

I don’t think it’s any spoiler to say that from the outset it does look as if there is something not quite right about this family – the question is what, from whom it emanates and most of all, whether Kit can find any proof for it. Indeed, the alert reader may pick up some hints more quickly than Kit does, mainly because we do not have 15 similar cases to think about at the same time. Even then, though, we shall find our opinions of people constantly shifting, as hers do, and having to remember Vernon’s warning that nobody is all of a piece.

These salutary thoughts will not stop the reader occasionally yelling at Kit, “listen to X”, or “find out about Y”, because that is where much of the tension resides.  Kit is herself a survivor of a neglectful mother and a care home, and one of her siblings, Tyler, is still haunted by childhood events which Kit is trying to help him cope with. One thing that comes over very clearly from this novel is how easily an inexperienced, overworked person with worries of their own might miss, or misinterpret, something vital to a child’s welfare. It is significant, I think, that some of the most important things Kit finds out, both about this case and events in her brother’s past, she discovers by illicit, or at least not-approved-of, means - if she went wholly by the book, the ending would be very different.

This is a whodunnit, a did he dunnit, and if he dunnit, can they prove it? Which makes for a constant page-turner.  It is also a Bildungsroman for Kit, a likeable and credible character, but above all it is a testimony from a very hard place to work, by someone who quite clearly has been there, done that. Please don’t shy away because of the difficult nature of the material – the book, cannily, does not, in fact, dwell on harrowing aspects; it is enough to hint at them. There is humour, too, in Vernon’s battle with tidier souls who talk in management-speak and care more to protect their own backsides than anything else. But above all, there is this assurance, the feeling that we are listening to an author completely in control of their material, as we see from the first time Kit enters her open-plan office:


"The noise level was rising as dozens of phones rang and social workers rushed out on urgent visits, or in to make phone calls and get advice from their seniors. Impromptu meetings were going on all over the place: at desks, in corridors, in the coffee area and outside the toilets. Snippets of conversations reached Kit above the hubbub as she passed each team. One social worker was anxious about a teenager, a regular selfharmer who had gone missing from care over the weekend and had not yet turned up. In another team, the manager was trying to allocate the usual batch of domestic-violence referrals resulting from the weekend’s rugby-related drinking, her staff trying not to meet her eye. Wales had lost, Kit remembered, so no wonder they were reluctant to volunteer.

As Kit passed the Youth Justice Team, she spotted a young social worker sitting in silence with the phone to her ear, tears rolling down her face. Even from a few feet away, Kit could hear the furious shouting at the other end."

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Review of Going Back by David Wishart, independently published 2018



Corvinus, unwillingly attending an imperial dinner, consoles himself with the reflection that at least the current emperor is a bit saner than the last one…


"Claudius was a different kettle of fish altogether; at least you could be certain that when you turned up in your glad-rags with your party slippers under your arm, he wouldn’t be got up like a brothel tart or Jupiter God Almighty complete with gold-wire beard and matching toy thunderbolt; our Gaius had had style, sure, no argument, but you can take that sort of thing too far. With Claudius, the worst you could expect was a lecture on Etruscan marriage customs and a detailed explanation of why the alphabet could really, really do with a few extra letters."


The trouble is, of course, that Claudius wants another favour.  His mother-in-law is pestering him to find out who murdered the husband of an old friend of hers – in Carthage. Cue another journey to the outlying parts of the empire for Corvinus and family, with Perilla delighted at the prospect of new monuments to explore and Bathyllus resigned to another sea crossing.

Corvinus has the usual problems – plenty of suspects, since the victim, wealthy landowner and businessman Cestius, was not popular even within his own family, and, the bane of all investigations, the fact that most people have something to hide, and will lie accordingly; it’s just that the something in question may not be murder. In addition, an apparently accidental death and an apparently completely unrelated street murder worry Corvinus, who has a hunch they are somehow relevant. Nobody shares his view, not even Perilla, and she and Corvinus are also at odds over two of his suspects, a couple to whom she’s taken a great liking.

So basically the mixture as before, albeit in a fresh setting, with Corvinus getting up people’s noses, trying to avoid being beaten up and trying even harder to avoid the local speciality, date wine, which he’s been reliably informed is even worse than German beer. He also has to attend a  formal dinner party hosted by the local governor, none other than our old acquaintance Sulpicius Galba, which proves a more fraught occasion than the one with Claudius… Corvinus is convinced that even the guest list has been compiled with a view to ensuring he never comes again:


"There was Lutatius the banker with the cleft palate and his wife Quadratilla, sixty if she was a day, dressed and made up like a thirty year old, who had a laugh like a marble-saw: Rupilius, owner of the biggest undertaker’s business in the city, who looked the part and whose hobby was undertaking, plus his acid-tongued harpy of a wife Lautilla, whose hobby seemed to be slagging friends, acquaintances and total strangers off at every opportunity, and finally a guy I can’t remember the name of who sat through the whole meal without saying a word to anybody."


The plight of slaves in the empire gives him pause for thought again, as does the difference between law and justice, and we learn (painlessly via Perilla) some fascinating facts about the region’s history and its relationship with Rome. My one criticism would be that it seems a shame to take Meton all that way and then give him so little to do in the book – Bathyllus, though, proves to have a vital contribution to make to solving the mystery, as does an ill-behaved pet monkey.

I'm adding a couple of reviews of older Wishart books because I discovered some folk were no longer becoming aware of new ones now that he is self-publishing.  To find more, and keep up to date with him, go to his website at https://www.david-wishart.co.uk/

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Review of Loose Canon by Michael McNamara pub Subterranean Blue Poetry




My accent now echoes those around me.
     We blend in. Displaced adapters.


This lively collection opens, appropriately, with a poem called “No Fixed Abode”. The abode in question is Newport in Wales, a town which has been absorbing newcomers for a very long time:

     From Coomassie Street to the Jamia Mosque
     the Somalians, Syrians and Eastern Europeans
     have inherited the patois of a multi-cultural community.
     “Awyite? Laters b’ra.” Now - see those strange shaped mountains?
     They are Celtic hill forts. Beaker people burial barrows.
     Pagan migrants and blood letters. Artists and innovators.
     Us.

The speaker, himself displaced, is moved to reflect on his Irish roots and on the concept of “home”. The long, loose lines of this poem move easily and anything but prosily; it’s a style that suits him. Sometimes when he uses shorter lines, I can feel him pausing to think at the end of them, and the momentum falters. This tends to happen when he’s trying to make a point rather than listening to the sounds and rhythms he creates. Usually he listens a lot to them and they often impel the thought–line of the poem – for instance, in “Wise Whispers Extant”, “whimpers” leads on to “whispers” which in turn suggests “prospers”. Or words and images suggest their opposites – “walk through closed doors/with open veins.” In this he reminds me a little of Kate O’Shea, whose thought process in her collection Homesick at Home is similarly often shaped by word association of various kinds.

At around 140 pages, I do think this collection is too long; there are poems in it, particularly towards the end, that need more polishing and haven’t really progressed from vague thought to finished poem yet. Basically he has two modes; observational and contemplative, and I much prefer the former. I don’t think this is purely personal preference: when he is in observational mode his poems have far more momentum than when he is considering life, the universe and everything. His language is sharper too; it is in observational poems like “Returns” that we get lines like this, with its inspired opening adjective: “Unaffiliated sheep are painted red and blue by home team supporters”. These observational poems are also free of the verbal tic, prevalent when he’s philosophising, of asking an inordinate number of questions, to which the answer may or may not be 42.

He needs more control: there’s thought that provokes and musings that go nowhere, wordplay with a purpose (like “From nights out, on the mean, bleak street/to nights, out on the three-piece suite”) and mere playing with words. And he could do with a bit more rigour sometimes, to eliminate the odd slack, cliched or sentimental phrase.  However there’s no doubt that when he’s on form and in control of his deeply felt pleasure in words, he can be both skilled and memorable. “Returns” may ramble a bit, but besides the unaffiliated sheep we get this striking evocation of place:

     Achill Island. One unforgettably sun steeped day.
     Still. Like a breath held. So still. Bordering a bleached, deserted village,
     a white sand sanctuary, a beach spilling in to clear, ice blue water.
     The mute Slievemore mountain, a grave with my name at its foot.

And in “Somewhere” we have these eccentric yet oddly effective line breaks creating a huge, eloquent hesitancy:

     Something called loneliness. Which
     was once just a word. Becomes a
     feeling. Somewhere on this journey.


This is 140 pages to dip in and out of; I would never claim it worked all the time. But when it does, it can be memorable and promises better for the future.