Sunday, 7 December 2014

Two more reviews

Mel Pryor's Drawn on Water is one of the new Eyewear 20/20 pamphlet series.
What stands out for me is Pryor's delicately balanced eye and ear - there's a precision in her language and use of form that makes these poems a pleasure to read, and then read again, more deeply.  They give much, without showing off.
Pryor writes clearly about pregnancy and parenthood and long-term spouse-dom while remaining original. Yes, you might think, "typical women's themes" but no -
take this unusual metaphor which yokes a specific stage of foetal development while the narrator is map reading in the Lake District - an ambitious conceptual leap that someone like Elizabeth Bishop or Jo Shapcott might make -

'I'm sure I felt a shift of love/ inside me, the cells of his back/move to their perfect slot / a mole form on his spine like a small lake/ just then, when I found where we were...(Back)

or this wonderful description of a new-born child -

'...a boy, / a five pound four ounce ravel of son' (Emergency Birth) -

It made me think of limbs and cords all tangled and bundled like thick, wet rope; wonderful.

At her best Pryor is dryly humorous and tender, exemplified best in the feisty and deliciously precise Rattus rattus which was chosen by Kathleen Jamie as one of the winners of the Mslexia Poetry competition -

'...the eye blobs creaming in the orient heat/ of ninety five at least, the lower coat/
more grubby than the gunk it mouldered in...' (Rattus rattus).
I love 'nature' writing that captures the creature in an original way, and this works.
Drawn on Water is one of the most enjoyable pamphlets I have read in a while and I look forward to reading Pryor's work in the future.


I have been waiting for Rowyda Amin's Desert Sunflowers for what seems like years after enjoying her poems in various magazines - and it is a beaut. Rowyda was the winner of the Venture Award in the same year as I was runner-up and Flipped Eye have published an attractive pamphlet in their (slightly oddly named) Flap series.

These are international poems, poems without borders or hemmed in by convention. Amin pushes at the boundaries of the surreal, but never gets fatally carried away.

I love the intoxicating abandonment of the language in the opening poem 'Genius Loci' - which personifies the voice of an ecstatic tramp (I think) and is also a an examination of the strait-jacket of 9 to 5 conformity -

'I, the one-man band, clockless animal, whistling Tarzan, crap in
the grass, rapture dalliance on benches, chuckle in my yellow
beard a fuzz of tasty syllables.'

Amin is a poet in love with the possibilities of language and she runs with it like a burning torch. She is also unafraid of ambiguity and has a sly humour which manifests in startling imagery -

'On my birthday, my mother takes delivery
of a baby capuchin.'

'Monkey Daughter'.

Unforgettable images include the "chattering" of "daffodil teeth" and carrots described as "gilded girls' under "green lace and dandelion".

Perhaps my favourite poem is 'Polly' which articulates more about the human relation to captured animals than many other more famous nature poems. I won't quote it in parts, for it would spoil it. Buy and enjoy.

Thursday, 27 November 2014


I've been writing a poem about barnacles today. It was 'homework' from the course I am doing - to begin a poem in the 'voice' of any animal, with a variation of these lines from 'The Cows on Killing Day' by Les Murray -
'All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining.'

If I had to come up with a favourite poetry collection, Les Murray's Translations from the Natural World would probably be it. He manages to get inside the mind of a creature, using a paradoxical mixture of observational truth and artifice/art (language). His best poems make the animal hyper-real.
For me, there are few others poets who can work this magic of convicingly, and often beautifully, inhabiting the mind of the non-human 'other' - Liz Berry, Alice Oswald and Ted Hughes (Wodwo) come to mind - and when it works, I am transfixed. As an example, take Les Murray's Bat's Ultrasound here with its wonderful crazy music -

I also found this exquisite poem by Les Murray on his site, uncollected. I hope it's ok to share it.

Mother Sea Lion
My pup has become myself
yet I'm still present

My breasts have vanished.
My pup has grown them on herself.

Tenderly we rub whiskers.
She, me, both still present.

I plunge, dive deep in the Clench.
My blood erects. Familiar joy.

Coming out, I swim the beach-shingle.
Blood subsides. Yet I enjoy still.

Anyway, I decided to write about barnacles. Here are a few opening lines from my draft -

Us grinding on granite, all nipply
holding fist-force, rock down
giant stamp into hollow, our hollow
shaped to our foot, our home. Us waiting
for the onrush, the cold tickle up and under
us orchestra -

us shift and whip our feathers
out into the soup, goodies flowing, down our tongue
us a thousand million voices
us up for it, us take it in, the good flow. 

Well, I haven't finished but it's been fun. When I was little I made nature scrapbooks with facts about animals in an exercise book. That impulse continues with these facts I found out about barnacles today.
They are sessile suspension feeders, class cirripedia (meaning curl-footed). Their calcite shell is formed of six plates and they reach into the water with long feathery legs, known as cirri, which they beat regularly to draw in plankton (this made me think of can-can dancers) - they lie on their backs with legs upwards.
Barnacles have no heart, a single eye (the operculum) which is thought to sense the difference between light and dark (though how would we know?) - their primary sense is touch.
They pass through five 'instars'  (developmental stages) and have the longest penis to body ratio in the animal kingdom. They have also been around for aeons, are hermaphrodite and mate using spermcasting (as it sounds). They look for wettability and assess the biofilm when deciding where to live.
Well, there you go - rather random but I love facts like that, and I know next time I'm in Devon I shall look at barnacles with deeper respect.
Thanks for reading

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

pamphlet micro-reviews

I've missed writing my blog this month; it's been busy. But here are some thoughts on three very different pamphlets I've read and enjoyed. I'd also like to say that I know these reviews are overwhelmingly positive. This is self-selecting - I am writing about these pamphlets, because I am inspired by them. I also personally know, and like, the authors, but that becomes incidental when reading their work.

First up is Declan Ryan, number 12 of the Faber New Poets, who count exciting poets such as Fiona Benson (no. 1) and Zaffar Kunial (11) among their number.
These are slender, exquisitely designed 'taster notes' if you will, of poets yet to publish a full collection, and they provide an excellent introduction to their work under the prestigious Faber & Faber imprint.
In Ryan's case, there are only ten poems in his rather lovely canary yellow offering which makes it a pleasure to absorb from cover to cover, especially if, like me, you can only concentrate for so long.
Many of these poems wear a deceptive lightness of tone that remind me of Hugo Williams, written with a tenderness at-one-remove, through emotional and/or physical distances:

'Just after rain,
sunlight stood between us
like a whitewashed wall.' (Trinity Hospital)

Real and imagined walls, and distances between lovers enhance the tenderness of address - often made in the second person - and direct questions invoke an immediate emotional response in the reader -

'When I get home will you read to me
in your new orange dress,
and lie that it's for the first time?' (Postcard from Australia)

Ryan is observer and custodian of the finest details of appearance and behaviour,  which makes reading his poems a 'felt' experience as much as an intellectual exercise.
I like it that there is no obfuscating, no need to hide in showiness. He displays a deft engagement with wider sociocultural matters including race, religion, music and environmental peril, mashing and mixing sources and voices. But it is his writing about love that stands out for me.
Writing of love's 'complicating touches', he unleashes a direct clout to the head and heart - duck, or prepared to be floored -

'I'm in my room, listening to your voice.
When this was live
you were in front of me, on stage,
in a red dress with a triangle cut in the back,
exactly the right size for my hand.' (Transmission)

I really look forward to seeing what he does next.

*Reviews of Mel Pryor's Drawn on Water and Rowyda Amin's Desert Sunflowers to follow shortly.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Self-promotional poetry updates

Well hello! Where is this year going? It is raining and raining today and the earth is absorbing it, shrinking back into winter regeneration. Not yet cold, but sodden. The animals are packing down.
I like it, indeed.


I am very pleased to have a poem in Best British Poetry 2014, edited by Mark Ford and Roddy Lumsden. According to the publishers, Salt, this anthology 'presents the finest and most engaging poems found in literary magazines and webzines over the past year. 
'The material gathered represents the rich variety of current UK poetry. Each poem is accompanied by a note by the poet explaining the inspiration for the poem.'
I'm heartened to have my poem, Messenger, included and look forward to reading the other contributions when the book is published this month.
Other news, I've got a few readings coming up.  I'll be reading a couple of poems at the launch of South Bank Poetry in the Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden on Friday 21st November.
I'm also reading at the launch of a new anthology, Her Wings of Glass, at the Second Light festival in London on November 22nd.
And on the 10th December, I'm joining Lorraine Mariner (reading from her brilliant new Picador collection, There Will Be No More Nonsense) and Kelley Swain (reading from her wonderful new collection Atlantic) at the Made in Greenwich Gallery, in ... Greenwich. 
I'm looking forward to all these events, and hope to maybe even see a few of you there. Thanks for reading.

Monday, 13 October 2014

An Aviary of Small Birds - Review

Birds, with their other-wordly, sometimes trangressive freedoms and modes of living are easily-reachable metaphorical rungs. I have turned to birds, often, in poems to express something of the ineffable, without casting wider for alternatives. Why not a greenfly, or glove, or grey squirrel?

Partly because birds and their aerial abilities are inherently alien, and beyond us, (and therefore romantic) much is projected upon them despite their vast intra-species differences. They soar and strut, loaded with symbol, more so than many other creatures - whether fish, fox or bees - poster insects for an environment in peril.
Long may we marvel at avian bounty. But for me, birds have to earn their place in poems, in an unexpected way, or their true startling-ness is overlooked.


Karen McCarthy Woolf's new collection, An Aviary of Small Birds, (Carcanet/Oxford Poets) is thrumming with wings. Birds are 'swift and deft', 'weightless'; a hawk's feet are 'surprisingly municipal/in colour, like double yellow lines' and a mallard is 'radiant'.
But nature in this book is more than pastoral and more than a vehicle for the 'other'.

An Aviary of Small Birds is, foremost, an elegy to a newborn son, Otto. There is an unflinching poem about a mare 'Of Roadkill and Other Corpses' that is, simply, heartbreaking in its direct truth. And there are butterflies, with their gothic Victoriana undertow, '...their silk a thread of fear/that runs from throat to clitoris...'
Creatures weave through the pages so lightly and delicately their presence is almost, not-quite there, and is testament to McCarthy Woolf's considerable skill in evoking an often deeply moving presence-in-absence. 

Some of the poems may be compared to conjuring tricks: the poems are so beautifully crafted that the white-gloved author is nowhere to be seen, only the doves fluttering over the stage.
Take the opening poem, The Undertaker, which repays many re-readings with its intimations of deep grief and the interaction between the subconscious and the visible surface - 

The Undertaker

wears white gloves
and his left hand waves 
on the crowd, moves

slowly as if under
the surface where water
swims sinuous as an elver

that darts between clouds
of ink in violet reeds
weightless as birds.

Other poems take on the unforgiving eye of a camera, staring destruction in the eye, trapped or imperilled.
Perhaps paradoxically from a book which builds from a state of loss, much is made animate, most strikingly 'The Wish'  - an unquantified obsession that invades, mutates, 'industrial/in its persistence' yet 'absolutely specific'. As well as nightmarish scenarios, in delivery rooms and often in transition, there is frequently a sweetness of tone and address that I find moving in its direct tenderness.

'There is a God
              and he dwells in the perfect
horse dung on the bridle path."

(The Weather in the Womb)

Her pared and measured language builds poems that often burst into vivid emotional resolution, much like a flock of birds lifting away.  
My favourite poem is Wing, with its intimations of corporeal loss and belonging and beautiful last two lines that to quote in isolation would be to cheapen. Here is the first stanza anyway -

We find you, dear Wing,
in the half-dark
on the way back from the piglets,
your knuckle of raw bone
and streak of claw-white quills
torn from the socket.

McCarthy Woolf is a poet attuned to the dark pulse of life beneath the gaudy day-to-day show. The precision and slant of her eye and ear lifts her work into surprising new territories. It is also replete with integrity, of hard-won, lived experience. Sometimes painful to read, she is not afraid to bring emotion so close to the glass you can hear wings, and limbs, and hooves beating against the panes. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Just some thoughts

At the Forward Poetry Prize readings this week, chair of judges Jeremy Paxman observed that poetry was mostly "irrelevant" to most peoples' lives. He also remarked that that, having ploughed through hundreds of collections as part of the judging process, the writing of poetry, at least, was in "good fettle" but the problem was the "reading" of the stuff.

I think he was making a fair point. As a graduate of a Creative Writing MA, I am one of thousands of aspiring writers who are processed through such courses, with dreams and ambitions, and some skills. While of course, there is much to learn from these courses (not least a sharpening of critical faculties) arguably one of their most important effects is to produce a fresh audience of what might be called 'deep readers'. People willing to give their time and attention. People willing to work at a poem with their selves, to give it time to breathe. In this sense, poetry has become a self-sufficient ecosystem, feeding itself (just), and long may it flourish for it is precious and vital.

J. Paxman (who incidentally was wearing distractingly bright red socks) is right though in economic terms - most poets are lucky to sell a few hundred books, receive some reviews in journals, mostly read by other poets, and Creative Writing professors, and then perhaps begin work on their next book.
Most poetry, it seems, is purchased by friends and families of the author, and other aspirant poets. So much poetry is only enjoyed by other poets. This is a loss as engaged, aware interesting people are missing out. Poetry makes life richer and sweeter, more musical. I know lots of friends, who are English graduates, who are afraid of poetry. They tell me they do not understand it. I don't really understand why they are put off. I tell them there is not a right answer; it is like art. Your own interpretation is valid in its own right. Just let the sounds of the words wash over you like song, that is enough. Or read deeper, thinking about every word and the white space around them. What the title really says. How the poem opens or closes itself. All these ways are valid and vital to reading too. It's not a religion or anything. You just have to give it your time and attention, like much that is worthwhile.

Will Self said recently the "extension of the human mind into the virtual inscape is already underway; people no longer depend on their own, personal and canonical memory to analyse and validate new information - they have outsourced such mental operations to algorithms..."
This is true. Our brains are changing...if I need to know the answer to something I go online without thinking. Perhaps I already knew the definition of a word, or a geographical location, but I google for the absolute to check before I check myself. I don't need to learn a poem by heart, because it is there at my fingertips.
We exist with less uncertainty. Our brains are in some senses becoming a meta-brain, and we must be aware of these semantic and synaptical shifts.  And ourselves as agents in a market, every click a footprint.

I know every generation harks on about technological advances and the death of culture. But such dependence on what Self calls "a monetised intellectual prosthesis" demands awareness and even restraint before we alight on the search bar for 'truth' in a fraction of seconds.

Anyway if you've got this far, it's worth reading this -

Monday, 29 September 2014

A letter to..

A letter to ... my pre-teen

Dear Son,
You are no longer at primary school - congratulations! You are old enough for secondary education now, and you carry your work around with you, like Shakespeare's 'creeping snail' with his 'shining morning face'.
You will learn to dowse the character of a group, to read the nature of each teacher and your relationship. 
You will learn how erratic buses are, and how to look like you know where you're going.
You will rest your head on the steamed glass windows and feel the weight of your books at your side.
You will be vulnerable. You will learn to keep your valuables safe.
You will ride the perpetual suburban commute. You will learn to stay dry in the rain.
You will lose: games, umbrellas, friendships, watches.
You will score: goals, answers, brownie points. Hopefully not drugs.
And you will learn to balance work with play - to sit at a desk while the sun is shining and work, but also to put your pen away and run outside.
You will make new friends, and keep the oldest ones close. You will learn to kiss.
You learn the value of kindness - innate and learned. You will learn to lie, to charm and to flatter. 
You will learn who you are, and who you are not, and how to tell them apart.

Your writing is spidery and etiolated. You collect words like a metal detector with pennies. You are nosy, you are kind. You love to play football. Your feet are beginning to smell. You bear a beautiful smile, and a mix of baby and adult teeth.
I want you to know I understand
Much love,
Me xx

Postscript - I will be right, and wrong about this, as it always seems to be!