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.

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 ‘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.   

Brain food

If you haven’t discovered the Hedgehog Press and its ‘Stickleback’ editions, please go and find them. These are slim volumes of four poems from a single poet, or sometimes two poets. They are beautifully- produced, colourful gems. My favourite at the moment is by Jules Whiting and Vic Pickup.

It’s about four responses to an EEG, a method of recording brain activity. In one poem, the technician shines lights at the patient, which become a fairgound ride, the sun glinting on trees and a glass bird. It is a fine way of showing how our imagination creates glorious things out of what is a technical but scary procedure.          

Another disturbing poem deals with falling in love – how the radiologist ‘holding her head in his hands, whispered reassurance’ and how he watches ‘this electrolysed Medusa’ and imagines her convulsions.

And in ‘Sleep EEG’ a wonderful conceit unwinds, where the patient asks if the technician can press a switch to ‘restore factory settings’.

The last poem ‘What Colour is My Brain?’ is a tender portrait of the interaction between patient and a radiologist who has himself had cancer. The patient touches his arm and wishes him a long life. ‘He cups my hand in his, smiles’.

If, in future, I have an EEG, I will carry these images with me, these human interpretations of what is a unsettling but necessary intervention.

I can’t recommend the Sticklebacks highly enough – they give huge bang for a poetic buck.

Choosing our poetry subject matter

I’ve been thinking about how we choose who to write about, and what risks we take.
Some of my poems are about my family. I wonder if it is right for me to reveal things about their lives that are quite personal and sometimes upsetting.
How do we decide that kind of thing? When does a portrait of someone that may have real meaning and value for many readers, become exploitative, distasteful, or just one-dimensional?
Poets and writers have grappled with this for centuries, and there are no clear rules to follow. But the poetry that can born of these family stories is sometimes brilliant and unsettling.
I have loved reading the poetry of Pascale Petit, much of which addresses the lives of her parents and her traumatic relationship to them. Julia Webb has painted a vivid poetic portrait of dysfunctional family life in ‘The Telling’ and Chris Laoutaris has written an exquisite extended elegy to his brother George, in ‘Bleed and See’. These poets, to me, do an amazing job of making the personal rich and touching and universal.
I wonder though, how easy it was for them to decide to portray their family in poetry?
I suppose some poets might want to ask permission of the people concerned, though that would not always be easy.
I haven’t had to do that, because all the close family I’ve written about are no longer alive. I try to respect their memory while being robust about the things that hurt them and damaged their lives, because their situations were not uncommon and a lot of readers will identify with what happened to them.
I suspect it may be easier to write about babies and children, than adults. And perhaps it is hard to encompass someone’s experience in one or two poems – maybe we need a chapbook or pamphlet or a collection to expand the different parts of their characters, to be fair and also truthful.