Review of  ‘In the Shadow of Gods’ by Rachel Deering

Wherever you open this collection, a strange poetic music snakes its way into your ears.

The 21st century (often) seems a long away off. We are in a world of forest, river and myth from Greek, Celtic or Old Norse cultures.

There are rich close-ups of the natural world, of trees, fish, birds, plants and the seasons. The poet creates startling images, for example, ‘my heart is a crow/ its wingbeats, a pulse’, or, ‘toads are waking, mothered/by water, belched’.

This is very structured collection, with sequences of poems dealing with different aspects of the living world and yet it feels like each poem flows from what comes before.

Sometimes the poet’s emotions shine through, but often expressed through metaphors relating to nature or myth.

In ‘Tawny Owl’, she grieves for a friend who she visited in hospital, reflecting that ‘we are so mysterious; the calls/ of tawny owls in conversation/ with the night.’ Even silence is full of meaning: ‘what is exchanged thickens the air/ between us, conveyed by touch and/ the coalescence of shadows.’

At the end of this bewitching collection, is an unexpected bonus, under the title ‘Words found in a hidden nook’. Eight extra poems to add to this substantial trove of strange, wild work, including one of my favourites, ‘The Night Heron’ who stalks ‘in stealth, creepfoot to creepfoot’,  and who is finally summed up as ‘a swindler, troubled and untroubled/ she loves and sleeps like a poet.’

I like the idea of poets as herons. (God help the fish.)

This is a beguiling, haunting collection by Rachel Deering, available from Black Bough Poetry.

Review of The Whiskey Tree Wave 1 – ‘Untamed Nature’

This fine anthology is a hymn to raw nature, whose poems rove over deserts, fields, rivers and salt marshes. It is curated by Alan Parry, editor-in-chief of The Broken Spine. The poets include Jay Rafferty, Vikki C., Karen Pierce Gonzalez, Matthew M.C. Smith and many more.

Here are just a few of my favourites. In ‘Larks Attending’, Mary Earnshaw walks a fisherman’s path, where the world is ‘un-edged/slipping convexly away/ as sea meets sky’.

Sue Finch, in ‘Desert Antlers’, stands at the edge of the desert. ‘Doubled by their shadow the antlers begged/ for the touch of my fingers’.     

Cait O’Neill McCullagh in ‘Allochory’ records the cycle of the seasons in potent, magical language. ‘Drookit, hope softens this bed for nutfall/ & we gullet her fattening, drill & sink sweet treasuries of seed’.  

For me, perhaps the most devastating poem is Matthew M C Smith’s ‘Now and Forever’ about a visit to a psychiatric hospital. ‘I see his mind as a diseased honeycomb with tiny fires,/ hexagons aglow. The slow flame edged with grey spreads/ through boundless chambers.’

I could go on. This slim volume is chock-full of arresting poetry. Available from The Broken Spine.   

Review of Nigel Kent’s ‘Fall’ from Hedgehog Press

This touching and disturbing book from NIgel Kent, published by Hedgehog Press, unpacks the mechanism of infidelity, and its painful consequences, in two halves titled ‘Falling’ and ‘Fallout.’

It is about the crumbling of a marriage, and sometimes the practical details of adultery are raw and hard to read. ‘As soon as he leaves/she prepares for her husband’s return/bleaching bedsheets clean.’

The poems explore the lies and evasion involved in infidelity and how it changes us. The cheating wife accuses her lover: ‘you made me a keeper of secrets/encoder of words and looks/adept in deception’.

And when hopes for the new relationship wither and die, we watch the woman who betrayed her husband feed her lover’s letters into ‘the lips/of the machine’ – a shredding machine.  

In the second section,  ‘Fallout’ we see more of the husband’s emotions. ‘You’re love’s illusionist/ who dazzles to deceive/ who turns lover into friend/ guilt into innocence.’  

Some of the most effective passages, for me, involve the stark practicalities of deception, or indeed, of moving on. The husband speaks of a home ’cleansed/ of you’ and of  ‘the waste of a marriage/ dropped into binbags /by the back door.’

There is desperation here and the possibility of a breakdown. In the poem, ‘Feeling Down’, we see  overwhelming grief and anger combine. ‘You let me DOWN/ ran me DOWN/said I tied you DOWN’.

By the end of the book, we sense a coming-to-terms with the lost marriage, but also a sense of the abiding pain which as great as the original love.

This is a moving and unsettling read, but the delicacy and emotional authenticity of the poetry propel you onwards to the conclusion.

How should poets write about global news?

I’ll be honest, I probably don’t have the nerve to write poems in response to world events and current affairs.

For decades as a BBC staff reporter and presenter in global news,  I schooled myself to mute my opinions, to prevent even a hint of bias in the journalism. I think it may be rather late to suppress that instinct.

I guess it is possible to write effective poems which are ‘political’ without being crude, didactic or self-righteous, or even without referring directly to the events that inspire the poem.

It may be easier to do this with historical happenings, but very difficult to strike the right note with something that is taking place today, where people are suffering as we speak.

If I/you still want to forge ahead, how do we stop ourselves from doing a kind of potted news report in poetic language?       

And do we have to ask whether this is a suitable subject? Is the tragedy (let’s assume it is tragedy or war) being reduced to fodder for poems?  Are we appropriating what is not ours – should we leave it to poets in the country concerned to write the tragedy?

I don’t have any answers to these questions.  For me, the difficulties seem to outweigh the benefits.

I guess that’s down to the letters ‘BBC’ which still run through my consciousness, like the word ‘Blackpool’ runs through a stick of rock.

Review of Paul Brookes’ ‘Wolf Eye’,  published by The Red Ceilings Press

This collection, with its black cover showing a striking animal eye, is a bold dive into human perception – about letting perception run riot, seeing ’the grain in the clouds’, looking through ‘two full lunar spheres’ to see a place where ‘trees become lampstands ready/for the moonlight bulbs to be switched on’. The Wolf Eye makes the surreal everyday, turns everything into metaphor. 

There is an intense focus on bones  –‘ this morning sky is a blue bone’, ‘Every word is a bone /coming out of your mouth’. And later, in the last poem, ‘Bones In’, he urges us to ‘read the bones’.

 Paul Brookes takes the humdrum and makes it into art, sometimes with tongue in cheek– for example, in ‘My Mop Bucket’, he boasts, ‘My floors are landscapes. /Spillages become portraits.’

In the final stanza, he rhapsodises: ‘To see the world in a mop/and Heaven in a bucket’.

The Wolf Eye has a primitive view of the universe, interpreting what it sees, in terms of other parts of the natural world. It perceives the sky as a skull, ‘one eye is the moon/ one eye is the sun’  and solar systems as ‘tree rings of planets’. The cold is ‘sheer stone catching your skin’. 

The actions of the nerves and brain are likened to streams of water: ‘synaptic rivulets, neuron canals, sacred water/ riverbrain flows in my head’

We get short snapshots of human society. ‘Mouse skitters between/soft drink and alcohol aisles.’ But for me, the most pleasing poems are those that deal with and interpret the natural world in a delightfully experimental way, as in ‘The Cloud Breakers’ where ‘frost formats fences, branches/ White margins widen.’

One of the words used most often in this intriguing book is ‘gust’. In the last hand-written poem in this little book, Paul writes ‘skies briefly assemble /skeletons, temporary constructions/ gust experiments’. This focus on gust is apt, because there is an impression that the poet’s attention,  his perception, is blown and swayed by gusts of metaphor, always surprising and always a fresh interpretation of something we all take for granted.    

Longlisting – a bittersweet experience

After a great push of submissions in the past two or three months, I tried to damp down my expectations. Good move, I thought, because at first it seemed like every response was negative. I was beginning to think that everything I wrote was trite and babyish and not ‘slant’ enough for most editors’ taste. It was more than a bit disheartening.

Then I got a couple of emails saying I had been longlisted, for pamphlet and magazine submissions and suddenly –  I was smiling broadly! Someone had actually seen something they liked in my poems.  

I tweeted about this experience, asking other people what they thought of the longlist. Most agreed that it is a good boost for the poetic psyche, even if you don’t get any farther than the longlist. When prestigious publishers such as Butcher’s Dog put you on a longlist, it does mean something. It means – keep trying, you are writing something that touches an editor’s critical heart. And the Butcher’s Dog emails, when they let you know you didn’t make it past the longlist, are as kind and encouraging as possible.

One poet came back to me on Twitter and said that longlisting was a bad idea because those longlisted still get disappointed in the end, and the majority of applicants are even more despairing because they didn’t get longlisted.  

I have to disagree. In my case, it helps me move on with some improved confidence.

Sometimes the longlist or shortlist is announced with a fanfare, and everyone knows about it. Sometimes, it comes at the bottom of a simple rejection ‘by the way, you made it to the longlist’. Even that, grudging as it sounds, is helpful.

The oddest recent experience was an email from a poetry competition telling me I was on the ‘Almost Made it to Longlist’ list!  Actually, even that was a boost because the judge was a poet I deeply respect and it was good to know he saw something in my work.    

We all know that it’s extremely hard to get published, because editors may want a specific tone and style for their publication, and want the chosen poems to flow from page to page, and even if yours is outstanding, it may not fit into that vision. So you just have to keep on slogging, churning the submissions out.

Recently, I got a lovely surprise when Black Bough Poetry Press nominated me (among other poets) for Best of the Net. That was more than a smile – it was a giant whoop that made my other half come running.  

However the boost comes to you, however strong or diluted, take it and enjoy it. It is fuel to keep chugging on.   

Review of Transformations by Beth Brooke

This collection by Beth Brooke is full of metamorphosis and shape-shifting, between humans, animals and plants. All the poems are striking ekphrastic responses to work by the artist Elisabeth Frink, who spent some of her life in Dorset, where Beth lives.

I particularly love the poem ‘Green Man’, where this mythical figure seems to melt gloriously into plant life.  ‘Praise climbs out of my mouth/clings to my cheeks like ivy/on the wall of a garden’.    

There are far bleaker and more unsettling poems such as ‘Horses at the Battle of Philippi’: ‘riderless horses, flanks slippery with sweat/plunge through the chaos. Their eyes made wild,/ made mad by the noise and thrust of war.’

Beth’s wide variety of responses to the images and sculptures show her versatility, wit and passion. It’s a fascinating read, which sends you back to the Frink artworks, and has a beautiful cover featuring The Green Man, published by the evergreen Hedgehog Poetry Press.  

Review of ‘Round The Houses’ by Dan Hartigan

Published by Shoals of Starlings Press.

This collection by Dan Hartigan is an extraordinary, lyrical  meditation by a builder-poet, on the houses we inhabit, and on the breakdown of physical and spiritual aspects of home. It is haunting, in the sense that we meet the shattered, neglected bones of various buildings, and see odd wisps of their owners’ stories. Each poem has the street address of a house.

In ‘Westhill Road’, Dan plays with repetition, to paint a picture of how essential are these places where we live, that cocoon us, and yet are subject to time and decay.   

‘And houses wrap round lightning wires,

and houses play with pipes and fires,

the houses wrestle with their rust,

and rend their render all to dust’.

There is wonderful evocation of the solid nature of building materials and the sheer slog involved in the job.

‘Tempered glass has a weight to it/that could come down and split worlds.’

And on clearing one cottage of waste, a cottage that has ‘walls as level as an 1850s pyramid scheme’  the poet documents the sweeping away of people’s domestic history.  

‘Kintsugi cracks catch at bags

I’m hauling to the tip, dragging

into skips like scraps of paper

down Winston’s memory hole.’

This is a collection to stop and make you think about the spaces we inhabit. You may even begin to see  builders as unsung witnesses of the cycles of life and death, of refurbishment and decay, that play out in all our houses.   

Should poets group their work into marketable themes?

Am I the only person to desperately count up the number of poems written on a particular theme, to see if it will stretch for a submission for chapbook or pamphlet? Probably not.

Perhaps because I have spent a lot of time thinking about the theme (for example, the effect of pollution on my local seas, or the story of forced adoption in my family) it feels like I have dozens of poems tucked away on this theme.

And yet I don’t. I have a very large number of poems, but on many and various subjects.

And trying to expand the number on a theme, in an artificial attempt to ‘fit the bill’ can result in repetition and poor poetic quality.

Of course, you could say that I’m being too literal, and that every chapbook or collection should have a variety of forms and themes, of light and shade. Maybe. But I get the feeling that many publishers want simple narratives of ‘What the Poems Are About, and Who is Writing Them.’ I can’t blame them.

What I worry about, is that this might push some of us to channel our poetic time and energy into echoing silos of stuff which are saleable, rather than opening up our thinking to wild new subjects.

Maybe the problem is with me – that I want work to be published and I’m too keen to fit in with what (I imagine) is desired. Perhaps I should just (virtually) throw all the pages up in the air and send off whatever lands in a rough pile. 

‘Street Sailing’ by Matt Gilbert

After reading Matt Gilbert’s ‘Street Sailing’, I feel like I have been for a long walk with him, in Bristol and the country and places in-between, a meditative walk noticing tiny detail and letting it stir the emotions.

He is not afraid of showing his own reaction to places and events, including being moved by the ‘wood-hard muscles’ of hornbeam trees, and an incident where he lit the match to burn a bunch of dead, poisoned rats – ‘layered in between sticks and crumpled /paper, like rat lasagne.’

One of my favourite poems is ‘Garden bag resurrection’ which I remember reading on a long-ago TopTweetTuesday on Twitter. This surreal imagining of the bag as ‘a crumpled, green face’ transforms the ‘death-mask’ into a temporary hive for bees who the poet sees as ‘reinventing space, bridging hope and ruin.’  I can only marvel at such generosity of imagination, to cull this from a mundane object.

There are remarkable relationships at work here, with the living world. The poet sees an old oak in ‘Undercliff’ and staggered, stops. ‘Together briefly, we are a pair/of pilgrims, passing on the road.’ This, somehow, feels like an encounter of equals.

Matt Gilbert (skilfully edited by Matthew M C Smith) has woven some kind of deep magic here from unprepossessing, everyday fabric. Treat yourself to a taste of his conjuring skills.

Available on Amazon