Although I write, edit and publish poetry, I genuinely find reviewing poetry challenging. It inevitably makes me think of the way we used to pick apart poems at school (I have a particular memory of sitting at my wooden desk in my English class and dissecting one of Wilfred Owen’s most famous war poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’). Now I’m sure there’s a great deal of value to studying a poem in this way, because understanding the mechanics of any art gives you a better appreciation of how a skilled work of art is created, but it cannot, in any major way, alter the viewer’s (or reader’s) subjective reaction to the piece of art (book, poem etc.). When I first read Wilfred Owen’s poems they caused an emotional response in me. Then, later (in critical, objective mode) I was able to study the poem to work out precisely how he’d used language to produce that emotional response.
There is always some debate about exactly what a review is – is it a critical (and objective) analysis of the piece of writing? – or is it a reader’s emotional (and so, subjective) response to the piece? And with poetry, there’s the added problem of the much-argued-over-question – what exactly is poetry for? What is it supposed to do? Well, it’s not really going to offer escapism like a commercial fiction beach read will. Nor will it provide detailed information like a useful non-fiction book. I suppose it’s closest relative in terms of form is the literary novel (or flash fiction length-wise) due to their shared emphasis on the crafting of words and insight into the human condition. Yet poems can also be funny and political and peaceful and about things like shoes and goldfish and Newtonian mechanics. During the years I’ve spent editing poetry I’ve come to the conclusion that the poem’s main raison d’etre is to make the reader feel something: to create an emotional response. Otherwise it’s little more than a list of ingredients on a cereal packet. Diverting enough whilst eating breakfast but not memorable. So coming at it from that angle (and also with the knowledge that, technically, all these writers produce high-quality work) I wanted to share my reactions to the following four poetry collections.
As the title explains, Angela Readman’s third collection is (mainly) about the sea. And just like the sea, the poems are full of beauty, mystery and restrained power. There are so many layers to the poems, that as soon as I had finished reading the one poem I had to read it again. On each rereading the poem would offer up more gifts – insights into female power and what robs women of this power, what it means to love and be loved, as well as stunning and original imagery. I came away from the book with the sense of having witnessed the profound (yet almost invisible) turmoil of soul-work in action.
And I rushed to your house, a waterfall, ready
to pour whoever I thought I was into your arms.
From ‘The Morning of La Llorona’
I think there’s no doubt that earth is less attractive than water. Earth dirties, water cleans. When they mix, as they often do in the UK in the form of soggy clay (or mud) they create a mixture that is both unwelcome yet somehow honest and humbling. Plant life springs forth from soil, and for many of us it is soil that will receive our bodies when we die. The poems in Empires of Clay have been described as “earthy, erotic” by Steve Ely and I completely agree. Of course I love the poems about motherhood (they appeared in Becky’s debut pamphlet, Echolocation, which my press published) but what really struck me about this collection was how skilled Becky is in writing about how we experience our memories and what it is that we do (or not do) with them. Her poems ‘Forgotten Well’ and ‘Stray Rein in January’ particularly impressed on me. Her writing really does have a haunting quality to it.
I remember that and approaching the bridge –
the fearsome echo
of something I couldn’t fathom
reverberated in my bones like…
There was snow?
Yes, I recall the thaw of someone else’s
footprints as I stumbled back.
A train, Karen said and we watch it flash
towards the future, trailing its echo
From ‘Stray Rein in January’
This slim pamphlet, like Angela Readman’s The Book of Tides, also contains narratives of water, but the life of the outsider (pirates, specifically) is the main theme. These poems are, as the title suggests, both delicate and deadly; on rereading they reveal a precise yet subtle crafting, but what I particularly enjoy about Kate’s poems are how she manages to get whole stories into the poems. This really is remarkable, considering the brevity of the form. (I also happen to currently be doing my own research about female pirates for a story, so this has provided me with much inspiration.)
Now she wakes: deadly, delicate.
She presses her lips to my
breasts – once, twice – my hands smooth
her hips, and we love once more.
But I lose her each time
to breeches, boots and ship.
From ‘Crack Jenny’s Teacup’
First up, I have to say that I am a huge fan of Stonewood Press, and the Stonewood Press thumbprints series. Martin Parker’s wonderful design and illustrations always perfectly set off the words within. And what words! In Earthworks, there is the quiet power and timelessness of hills, wood and stone. What struck me about these poems is how much love they contain – for fields and animals, rocks and earth, words and connections between humans. I have returned to this collection often.
But pain is a measure, living a delay:
These hills, they promise nothing for sure.
See? How the skies drag blue over grey.
And always the centre is flint, is clay.
From ‘High Hills’
Poetry is often seen as inaccessible, unreadable, dry. But I believe that much poetry today is vibrant and accessible, and that some of the best work is coming out of the indie press scene. Slim pamphlets are a lovely “way in” to poetry world; a larger collection is probably for someone with more time and energy to invest in the reading of poems. I won’t lie – poetry collections take me a long time to finish because I read only a few poems at a time so that I can absorb them properly, but a slim pamphlet – time-wise – feels very manageable. All the collections above are beautifully presented and, overall, enriching and satisfying. I highly recommend them, and if anyone knows of any collections to do with fire or air, please let me know. They may well provide a good counterpoint to this post!