Narratives of birth and death and all that there is in between: 5 poetry collection reviews

Work and writing projects have kept me from adding much to my blog recently, but I love this little space of mine and so will continue to “slow blog” in my own unique and eclectic manner. Of late, poetry has been on my mind for various reasons, and in a desire to give back to Poetry World I am reviewing the following collections. I can highly recommend them all.

 

Land and Sea and Turning by Kate Garrett is a pleasingly substantial pamphlet given its slimness; the paper of the pamphlet is relatively thick and I like the black endpapers – a most striking and fitting touch given the cover art. The poems balance light and dark, leaving and arriving, so skilfully that, often, I do not know how the trick is done. In general, the themes are dark and disquieting, but Garrett has such a light, skilful touch that even the most macabre of topics – for example, an obscure medieval tradition of mutilating corpses in case of possible reanimation – becomes an entrancing, rewarding read. Then, in between, there will be a poem about a more general subject such as mothering which, to my mind, opens the whole collection and provides it with an uplifting airiness. ‘Witchling’ (about her daughter, Saoirse) is a sweet gem of a poem, though it is still infused with Garrett’s trademark fairy tale sharpness, and ‘From one room to another’ is a gorgeous, romantic poem, its rhythm drawing you on through the couplets.

‘For Josephine’ is one of my favourites in the pamphlet and a beautifully understated poem to a woman

 

“…whose lips prayed their last as she

ran for the train, ran for the tracks

and flew, just once, to land at the feet

of strangers in a station, to land in a grave

 

belonging to “The Girl in Blue”….”

 

 

Kate is fast becoming one of my favourite poets and I very much look forward to reading more from her.

*

Angela Topping’s latest book, The Five Petals of Elderflower, is a compelling collection by a poet truly at the height of her powers. Topping’s poems make for easy reading, in that the language is straightforward and unfussy which, actually, makes them all the more remarkable. To convey so much power in such a direct yet subtle way is extraordinary and marks out Topping as a poet through and through. I also love the way she can’t be boxed-in into any particular ‘type’ of poet. When reading her poems on nature – ‘Seed Time’ is a favourite – I can’t help thinking: this is her forte. And then she will blow me away with a poem about an apparently small moment – a mother and daughter posing together for a photo – with its insights into the mother-daughter bond:

 

“…For this studio photograph

they are stitched together, a book bound dos á dos.

It has always been this way with mothers and daughters.”

 

From ‘They Pose Together’

 

This is a gorgeous-looking book, put together with real love, and I really hope that Topping’s next collection, small or large, comes out soon.

*

On the other hand, in Loneliness is the Machine that Drives the World, Grant Tarbard, another poet through and through, uses language in a more tricksy, mysterious way. The sometimes uncanny images he conjures are striking in their juxtaposition.

 

“Gathering a rich patchwork of echoes

in the desolate breakfast of wild hair,

dyed white under the cracked sun – he ventures to

speak with the sand for forty days and forty nights.”

 

From ‘Sage of the Wastes’

 

Through his poetry the reader is able to perceive the world through a rather uncanny lens, simultaneously otherworldly though, often, rotten within:

 

“all lilies, all buds,

stink of life’s rotten sweetness,

the scent of a wreath”

 

From ‘I’ll Be No-One Again’

 

His is the kind of writing I would most like to emulate, yet it is frustratingly difficult to achieve. So, instead, l’ll leave the likes of Tarbard up to it and make do with my own style, while admiring his so much. I also want to add that the quality of the pamphlet is very high. The pamphlet is a real object of beauty in its own right and I am very glad to have discovered the press, Platypus Press, because of it.

*

Out of all the poets I can “hear” Cathy Bryant’s voice the most. When I read her poems it is as though she’s in the room with me, sitting beside me, having a poetical conversation. Her poetry is warm and witty, yet sharp and precise when it needs to be, the themes she writes about, as well as the voices she uses, eclectic. Her latest collection, Erratics – with its striking and fitting cover art – is rather like a hug from a good friend, her poem ‘Warmer Places’ a fine example of the poet’s warmth:

 

“then her eye catches mine at the right angle

and we laugh ourselves into a new season

and a warmer place.”

 

Though, as I said earlier, she can sting when she wants to:

 

“Yes, England welcomed the uncommercial,

artistic and odd, said Sylvia.

And didn’t we make her stay special.”

 

From ‘Sylvia Plath Talks About England’

 

A sucker for good storytelling (and Cathy really is a natural when it comes to storytelling) I will look forward to reading more of Cathy’s poetry.

*

Lastly, Moon Milk, by Rachel Bower is a pamphlet on the themes of new motherhood and family life – topics close to my heart. Having read a lot of poetry on these themes through my publishing work I feel quite well-versed in the various approaches writer-mothers take when tackling these subjects and see a fair bit of familiar imagery. What I particularly liked about Rachel’s pamplet is how different it is, and yet it still manages to be fresh and full of warmth, something that I feel is very difficult to achieve well in this context. ‘Slow Ship’, ‘Oyster’ and ‘Amber’ are beautifully crafted and some of my favourites – resonating as they do with my own experiences.

 

“I hope to remember the woman I was

before he was born, the sculptor of rain

 

but when his small cry balloons

I become the milk that surges in,

his face a pearl in my arms.”

 

From ‘Oyster’

 

The pamphlet is a gorgeous book in its own right – the paper pleasingly thick, the interior design elegant and the cover striking. Well done to Valley Press for publishing a book that I would’ve eagerly taken on. I will keep my eye on what Rachel does next…

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Narratives of Water and Earth: 4 poetry collection reviews

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.

 

The Book of Tides by Angela Readman (Nine Arches Press)

The Book of Tides, by Angela Readman

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’

 

Empires of Clay, by Becky Cherriman (Cinnamon Press)

Empires of Clay, by Becky Cherriman

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’

 

 

Deadly, Delicate by Kate Garrett (Picaroon Poetry)

deadly-delicate-by-kate-garrett

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’

 

Earthworks, by Jacqueline Gabbitas (Stonewood Press)

Earthworks by Jacqueline Gabbitas

 

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!

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