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Poetry Round-up

A Review by Richie McCaffery

Nina Simone is Singing
Leontia Flynn
Mariscat Press (2021) £7.50
The Voyage of St Brendan
A.B. Jackson
Bloodaxe Books (2021) £10.99
The Saints are Coming
Andy Jackson
Blue Diode Press (2020) £10.00
Wedding Grief
A.C. Clarke
Tapsalteerie (2021) £5.00
The Marketplace of Ideas
Stefan Mohamed
Stewed Rhubarb Press (2021) £5.99
Naranjas
Tom Pow
Galileo Publishers (2021) £9.99

Reviews by Richie McCaffery

The first collection under scrutiny from this impressive gallimaufry is Leontia Flynn’s pamphlet Nina Simone is Singing. Deceptively simple and terse, these poems of clipped quatrains open out to existential and emotional vistas that belie their subtle forms. The title poem is a spell-binding mediation on how far the speaker has come through life, since remembering listening to Nina Simone’s ‘In my Solitude’ as a student ‘playing at solitude’, back in 1999:

Set down this cup.
Oh drink not from this glass,
young, irrepressibly
thirsty former self!

For what you call solitude
is a yawning mouth
into which might drop
quarters, lengths, fathoms.

There is a consistent underlying theme to these poems of solitude and privacy contrasted with the public arena: ‘The footage from the drone’ tells us of how ‘Fire’s poetry tore / through the building’s prose’, ‘In the municipal pool’ is about the search for a space for women, as seen in the Roman idea of the ‘gynaeceum’ and in ‘In public squares on cobbled streets’ the speaker is so enthralled by the beauty and bustle of Paris they nearly come to grief like Roland Barthes who ‘was run over by a laundry truck’. The poem emphasises the narrowness of the streets being to blame. This nagging sense of narrowness or of being trapped makes for a powerful and challenging poetry, the neatness and order of these poems forever being threatened by the great seismic forces at work underneath them:

It is solstice in the city.
The gulls are flying – high
into pale infinitesimal light.
Each building on the road

south from the centre
is standing, robustly,
on its own square shadow.

[…]

I scan each surface

for the remnants
of my Gross Domestic Product.
One sock. A half-read book.
This child’s plastic volcano –

its small dome cooling
after the explosion.

A. B. Jackson’s collection The Voyage of St Brendan finds Jackson in mytho-poetic terrae incognitae with his rendering of the 9th century tale of Brendan and his band of sea-faring brethren. Composed of prose poems and a mixture of heroic couplets and rhyming ABCB quatrains, the book naturally has something of a balladic or bardic music to it. The sound system of the poem being like the tidal forces that move Brendan’s currach along to new discoveries:

Fair winds and wave-voice
the currach speeds west
as Brendan’s heart thumps
an apple harvest

Arrow-fall gannets
bullseye the sea-skin
on board all chatter
high moods in a swim    
from ‘The Great Fish’

Jackson is particularly adept with images and similes, such as one of the friar’s who is described as having hair ‘wood-shavings curly’. This is an immensely enjoyable, spirited and at times witty collection, boosted visually by the presence of Kathleen Neeley’s striking woodcuts. It is also the fruit of a great amount of academic toil – having come from the creative strand of Jackson’s PhD on the poetry of polar exploration. The reader is very grateful for the explanatory notes behind many of Jackson’s decisions to reworking the legend in a certain way, his scholarly effort perhaps comparable to the huge odyssey undertaken by Brendan and his men across the world.

A number of collections up for review here have a very distinctive set theme and this is certainly the case with Andy Jackson’s The Saints are Coming. It’s particularly apt that John Glenday has provided a laudatory blurb for this collection, considering Glenday’s own poem ‘St Orage’ which is about imagining the saints in the gaps in familiar words like ‘storage’, ‘steadfast’, ‘stanza’ and the like. Here Jackson brings to life the obscure and overlooked patron saints who have found themselves in death tethered to some frankly bizarre causes. This is no dull hagiography and in his preface Jackson quips that this book is more likely to see him excommunicated than canonised. It seems there is a patron saint for just about everything, even those who seem least in need of one, such as arms dealers, thieves and bankers. It’s hard to believe some of these are real, but we are assured they are, such as ‘St Gang Bing’, the ‘patron saint of eunuchs’ whose name sounds phonologically close to something rather suitably rude.

A.C. Clarke is a very rare breed of poet who is capable of being very prolific without any dip in the high quality of her output and her latest pamphlet Wedding Grief is further evidence of that. This is a poetic dramatization of the turbulent relationship between Elena Dimitrievna Diakonova (known as ‘Gala’) and her first husband, the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard. The time span of the collection runs from their first meeting in 1913 to their divorce in 1932. The first section of the collection concerns their love letters and draws largely on them set against the backdrop of World War One. The second section shows how war took Éluard away and changed him and the closing portion gives a poetic overview of their life together. There is little doubt that the war has much to answer for in driving a wedge between them:

His heart hangs on a tree exposed
like soldiers blackening on the wire.
In two days he receives three thousand wounded.

Like a tree struck by a shell his heart is split
between plain duty and rosy desire.
In one day he writes to a hundred parents.
                    from ‘Battle’

There is an admirable control and deftness of touch to these poems, a sympathetic treatment that does not seem like prurient snooping in the past. The sacredness of the love between the two is at all times respected:

Inseparable souls
sharing bacilli
from their unexplored lips
from their not-quite-meeting hands
they infect each other
with the live
serum of love.        
from ‘Gala and Paul in the sanatorium’.

On the topic of surrealism we have the powerfully outré poems of Stefan Mohamed in his pamphlet The Marketplace of Ideas. On the surface, Mohamed seems to deal in trivial things, the petty concerns of angsty millennials, raised by the internet and social media and all their attendant dangers and rabbit holes:

Millennial can’t afford to kill themselves because they spent all
     their money on avocado frappes.

Millennials are killing the avocado frappe industry – is love to
     blame?     
from ‘Big Mood’

However, I think to dismiss such poetry is to do it a huge injustice as there is much more to this than surface absurdism or humour. In fact, as the pamphlet goes on it seems less and less like the speaker is a disenchanted millennial but rather someone with a deep social conscience, who looks around and sees they are living in a cacotopia. In ‘Darling Boy’ Mohamed tackles privileged toxic masculinity which seems so entrenched in society:

What are you telling your sons?

You are a future gorilla
and all of this will one day be yours

These are troubling and darkly bizarre poems that make you reassess your comfortable lot. In ‘Sleep Paralysis’ I’m reminded of Stefan Zweig’s image of Europe sleepwalking into catastrophe and here, in a nightmarish image, Mohamed seems to hit at the very taproot of all that is wrong with smug, sham, nationalist middle-England:

all of us trapped in England’s most ruthlessly authentic
     café, Diana beaming from every surface, builder’s tea on tap,
     and all around the room the salt of the earth murmur green
     and pleasant murmur fair play murmur Blitz spirit murmur
     mushy peas murmur PARKLIFE

And we wake up screaming error 404

screaming country not found

constitutionally unable to breathe

Naranjas (Spanish for ‘oranges’) is Tom Pow’s substantial new collection, coming in at over 130 pages long. Yet for all of its copiousness, it never strikes the reader as being over-long or not selective enough. Each poem, like the oranges of the collection title, is rounded, fully achieved and bearing light, nourishment, refreshment. Few poets can appeal to all the senses simultaneously as well as Pow can:

[…] Because it is Wednesday

the inhabitants of each
scattered wooden dwelling
have hauled their kitchen tables
outside. There is a word – un-
translatable – for this action.

But its sense is this: to absorb
as much summer light
as possibly into the heart
of the wood, so that, come
winter, an incandescence,

faint as honey, will reflect
on every face.
     from ‘North Land’

Naranjas is a bravura display of the length and breadth of Pow’s interests as a poet, his zest for new places and travel and his unfastidious joy in life. There are poems here prompted by all sorts of experience and stimuli, from fine ekphrastic poems to elegies for fellow poets and a poignant poem for a dead cat that strikes a transcendent note:

Terrible things were happening
in the world. This was certainly
not one of them. This was simply
an old cat returning to us
the fictions we imagined sharing.
Not a you
in any meaningful sense –
but a life that had drawn
others’ lives around it
and that carried the years with it
like sunlight passing
through a garden.

Pow is certainly not ignorant to the ‘terrible things’ happening in the world, as a number of these poems demonstrate such as ‘The Ballad of Jolanta Bledaite’, a migrant worker in Scotland who was brutally murdered and dismembered simply for her £200 savings. The poems in this collection show that Pow’s gaze is attuned to many places at once and his poems are like the ‘pomology’ mentioned in ‘Bricks and Mortar’ – the study and cultivation of fruit and in Pow’s case the fruit is his poetry and his harvest is a bumper one.

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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