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.    

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. 

How should we handle good poetry news?

In the last two weeks I’ve had two pieces of good news about my poetry.

The first reaction was to whoop and run around the room. Eventually though, the adrenalin fades.

And the questions return – were my poems really worth these accolades? Surely not. And what happens next? Should I be writing something better, and will I ever be able to do that?   

I know this sounds really ungrateful. But I think many of us don’t actually know how to accept praise and acknowledgement. I suppose imposter syndrome is a natural condition for many poets, especially female poets and it’s hard to shake that off even when someone says yes to our poetry.

I wonder how other people track their successes. One poet suggested that we should write each piece of good news down and fold it up, put it in a jam-jar which we could look at on the desk.

I simply note down rejections or acceptances on an Excel spreadsheet for submissions. Perhaps that doesn’t make me feel happy enough about a success.

Part of the issue is about expectations. Will expectations for our future work be inflated by what’s happened, and can we measure up to them? Will the subjects we favour run dry?

It is tempting to think it is easier when there are no expectations. No one gets disappointed.

But that’s just defeatist. I am, deep down, very happy that someone believes in a number of my already-written poems. It means that I can keep on writing, can change what I’m doing, grow and develop and hope there is still something there worth the reading.

And of course, having any success is a rare and lovely thing in a crowded poetry market.

I know what my late mum would say. Ditch the humility, and thank your lucky stars.  

‘The Crow Gods’

I live in Devon, and I love its red soil, its deep interior and its scintillating coastline. For that and many other reasons, I have been looking forward to Sarah Connor’s collection ‘The Crow Gods’ from new publisher Sidhe Press whose editor-in-chief is Annick Yerem.

In this collection, Sarah’s focus moves between Devon’s countryside and wildlife, to the subtleties of relationships and family life. The book has been called ‘sensuous, wise, surprising’. 

If you love nature and striking poetic imagery, please go and order it immediately from https://sidhe-press.eu/

Here is a poem from the book, which Sarah and Annick have kindly allowed me to share with you.                                    #thecrowgods @sacosw @missyerem @sidhepress

The swimmer

Rook slips into the air
like a child slipping
into water, trusting
that she will be held.
A current carries her
or, at least, she rides
the current and rises,
circling, into the cold sky.

It’s that first dip I love,
that drop, halted
by out-stretched wings – 
fall, interrupted –

so brave, to trust
the emptiness.

          

The Poetry of Trauma and Regret

Is it the natural tendency of poets to write about grief, damage, abuse and all kinds of decline?

Perhaps my view is deeply jaundiced. If it’s even partly true, maybe it is a symptom of our increasing focus on our identities, our mental health, and on climate change and environmental decay.

I find it hard to write poems whose progress ends on a note of hope. Of course, that is not something we can aim for. It has to occur naturally as the grain of the poem is shaved and shaped.

There is a view that we, as poets, are drawn to portray the worst things in our personal history. Is trauma a grisly attraction that draws the eyes and ears of publishers and readers? Or, given most poetry readers are writing poetry themselves, perhaps this is a doom-loop that we fly around, as a flock.

There’s no question that I am part of the flock. I have written about how my mother was forced to give away her first (illegitimate) child, and how coercive control affected female members of my family, and me.

And yet when I read ‘uplifting’ poems (forgive the churchy word) I see that it is often the poignant contrast between dark and light that makes them sing. There is (always) dark there too.

I remember what Jo Bell taught in a brilliant, thoughtful course during the pandemic called ‘Finding the Best in Challenging Times’. She suggested we might find celebratory ways of thinking about our bodies and spirits, to express longing and wonder, to affirm the good as well as recognising the bad. Her teaching generated some poems for me, which are about to be published in a pamphlet by Nine Pens.       

Of course, leavening all that pain with a little joy may be healthy for our psychology, as well as our writing.