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Posts in My Writing – Review
In the Life of the Night: Review of Noctuary by Niall Campbell

Having kept diaries throughout my twenties coinciding with the births of my own children, I was especially keen to read Noctuary, and to reflect on the idea of writing at that liminal time before sleep or between bouts of sleep as is so often the case in the early years of being a parent. From this powerful beginning, trepidation about the man who replaces the dead father is established.

Sennitt Clough reveals terror as a consequence of menace, ‘...I bolt like a spooked horse / to the jackhammer of my father’s fists.’ (This Little House), and highlights menace through another image of a creature in ‘Portrait Of My Mother And Stepfather As Moths’. Creatures and nature are revisited to reveal how untamed forces are uncontrollable,

‘Even the river / puts on a sleek display
like a muscled creature / running dark
as a conscience / ...’     (Anguilla Anguilla)

The poems take the reader through the poet-narrators terrifying experiences which she faces, bears and overcomes and are uncompromising in exposing the brutality which is part of the men’s lives. From the first poem when ‘my mother’s new husband crept behind / with a cloth bag… slow, slow, grab.’ (Sightings), violence and abuse recur frequently,

‘..his knife dimpling
her throat, saying I’ll kill you and kill your
bastard of a girl.’  
(Unmetered)

This violence crushes dreams and hopes,
Well-trodden lines on her palms lead me
down the grey, ruined streets of her previous lives, (The Mother);

‘and she looks out
of the window, dreams of places
she’s never been.’ (Bus Driver).

It is clear in the poems that for the mother and the daughter, dreams are distant and unfulfilled.

Sennitt Clough lifts the lid on hidden child abuse which children have to cope with (‘Germolene’, ‘And The Moon Up Above’), but must remain silent about, ‘...That I sense the glass / around my throat, the pin’s locking chafe.’ (The Glass Collar).

  Perhaps what is most tragic and most brutal is that the violence exploits the passion and longings in the young women, ‘Something flashed in your eyes, as you lower / yourself on me; attracts me like bait.’ (Bait).

The men are also ruined by their violence, with the lonely and wretched end of the bus driver alluded to in ‘its body is covered in patches of rust.’ (The Bus Driver), or committing suicide ‘And The Moon Up Above’, as well as the descent into alcoholism recurring throughout the poems.

Even the brutal stepfather had humanity in him, once. When he caught a linnet and was about to crush it,

‘but it was the small heartbeat
he felt through the gourd of his palm,
that made him set it free.’

(A Smallholding In The Fens).

Sadly, this spark of humanity is extinguished, and as a result, the mother and daughter live desperate lives at his hands. This uncompromising set of poems can’t help but arouse anger, even hatred, at the dark forces they lift the lid on, as well as the bleak desperation which traps the women in the cycle of abuse. And yet, for all that it is an uncomfortable read, it is important. It takes an accomplished poet to take the reader into this area and for them to leave disturbed, but certainly not depressed. Sennitt Clough does this, and more with her startling collection.

‘I touch his sleeve
and it comes to life,
like it’s full of swallows,

swifts, nightjars
nesting in its folds –’ ('Jacket'),
and,
‘I said everything I could before you stopped me,
sifted skin through hourglass after hourglass –’  

'Time Keeper'

The Skin Diary as a collection provides insight. It's a journal of survival despite loss, and closes with a charm-like poem,

‘…I plant for you / agapanthus, dahlia, harebell,’. Raw reality is contained between the imaginative, magical first and last poems. Throughout thoughts are raised about the power of the imagination, and of spell-like charms to help to elevate us above loss and longing.

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Life Interrupted: Review of 'Sightings' by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough

Sightings, with its stark opening line of the title poem, informs us that we’re entering a narrative of loss, ‘After my father died...’, but a menacing threat is established too, and these powerful messages, the aftermath of the loss of a father and menace, are to be played out through scenes of contradiction, ‘...its song, a call / to summer from a November morning.’; an ‘...active hope / and hopelessness,’; ‘...Rarest of Gifts was lost,’.

From this powerful beginning, trepidation about the man who replaces the dead father is established.

Sennitt Clough reveals terror as a consequence of menace, ‘...I bolt like a spooked horse / to the jackhammer of my father’s fists.’ (This Little House), and highlights menace through another image of a creature in ‘Portrait Of My Mother And Stepfather As Moths’. Creatures and nature are revisited to reveal how untamed forces are uncontrollable,

‘Even the river / puts on a sleek display
like a muscled creature / running dark
as a conscience / ...’     (Anguilla Anguilla)

The poems take the reader through the poet-narrators terrifying experiences which she faces, bears and overcomes and are uncompromising in exposing the brutality which is part of the men’s lives. From the first poem when ‘my mother’s new husband crept behind / with a cloth bag… slow, slow, grab.’ (Sightings), violence and abuse recur frequently,

‘..his knife dimpling
her throat, saying I’ll kill you and kill your
bastard of a girl.’  
(Unmetered)

This violence crushes dreams and hopes,
Well-trodden lines on her palms lead me
down the grey, ruined streets of her previous lives, (The Mother);

‘and she looks out
of the window, dreams of places
she’s never been.’ (Bus Driver).

It is clear in the poems that for the mother and the daughter, dreams are distant and unfulfilled.

Sennitt Clough lifts the lid on hidden child abuse which children have to cope with (‘Germolene’, ‘And The Moon Up Above’), but must remain silent about, ‘...That I sense the glass / around my throat, the pin’s locking chafe.’ (The Glass Collar).

  Perhaps what is most tragic and most brutal is that the violence exploits the passion and longings in the young women, ‘Something flashed in your eyes, as you lower / yourself on me; attracts me like bait.’ (Bait).

The men are also ruined by their violence, with the lonely and wretched end of the bus driver alluded to in ‘its body is covered in patches of rust.’ (The Bus Driver), or committing suicide ‘And The Moon Up Above’, as well as the descent into alcoholism recurring throughout the poems.

Even the brutal stepfather had humanity in him, once. When he caught a linnet and was about to crush it,

‘but it was the small heartbeat
he felt through the gourd of his palm,
that made him set it free.’

(A Smallholding In The Fens).

Sadly, this spark of humanity is extinguished, and as a result, the mother and daughter live desperate lives at his hands. This uncompromising set of poems can’t help but arouse anger, even hatred, at the dark forces they lift the lid on, as well as the bleak desperation which traps the women in the cycle of abuse. And yet, for all that it is an uncomfortable read, it is important. It takes an accomplished poet to take the reader into this area and for them to leave disturbed, but certainly not depressed. Sennitt Clough does this, and more with her startling collection.

‘I touch his sleeve
and it comes to life,
like it’s full of swallows,

swifts, nightjars
nesting in its folds –’ ('Jacket'),
and,
‘I said everything I could before you stopped me,
sifted skin through hourglass after hourglass –’  

'Time Keeper'

The Skin Diary as a collection provides insight. It's a journal of survival despite loss, and closes with a charm-like poem,

‘…I plant for you / agapanthus, dahlia, harebell,’. Raw reality is contained between the imaginative, magical first and last poems. Throughout thoughts are raised about the power of the imagination, and of spell-like charms to help to elevate us above loss and longing.

Read More
The English River, a journey down the Thames in poems and photographs by Virginia Astley

A QUIET EXCHANGE IN WORD AND IMAGE: REVIEW BY MARIA ISAKOVA BENNETT

 

The English River, a journey down the Thames in poems and photographs by Virginia Astley, 2018, 94pp, £12.00, Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Eastburn, South Park, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 IBS

 

Virginia Astley’s first collection is a journey both of the upper reaches of the Thames, and of an intimate relationship. Although many of the poems are personal, themes of loss and of a developing awareness of the self are universal.

This is my remembered landscape,

stored in my earliest self,
and all along, I have been re-winding, re-playing,
continuing this quiet exchange.   

                                    [‘I breathe as though I’ve been submerged 

                                      and am coming up for air’]

 

Music flows through this carefully formed and honed work in the way Virginia judges pace, tone and rhythm, and with references to aural effects perceived as music. In ‘Lammas Land’, ‘the lark cadenzas.’, in ‘I breathe as though I’ve been submerged and am coming up for air’, ‘…the bells can be heard / falling apart’, and in ‘Source’, the notes of a train are cited.  There are also direct references to music, for instance, ‘Chopin Opus 49’, the mention of which had me listening to the track as I read.

   Prayer, as with music, is both referenced directly, for instance in titles such as, ‘Sanctuary’, and in the content of poems, ‘there is the quiet of snow / and the quiet of church’ (‘I breathe as though I’ve been submerged and am coming up for air’). These motifs of prayer and music recur like echoes in a beautiful melody.

   The half-light of winter or early mornings is a frequent backdrop, ‘unable to sleep— the weir, the wind— / I’m walking the village before dawn,’ (‘Somewhere I’m not a blow-in’); ‘In the darkness you lie awake / hearing the front panes fret,…’, (‘Night Rain’). Virginia is sensitive to the fall and rise of light, and it’s these subdued parts of day and year that feature most in both poems and photographs.

   Intimacy is revealed through both memory and via dream references which Virginia uses skilfully, ‘I’m dreaming about you, / you’ve found me: at Michael’s / somehow trapped.’   (‘Old Songs’)

   Because of the quiet but passionate tone of the work, the more dramatic references in one of the pivotal poems placed at the centre of the collection are all the more arresting, ‘Your sister has married my ex, / the one I left for you;’, and, ‘But the last time I was in this house— / I can hardy speak— the last time, / was the day we buried you.’  (‘How did I ever think this would be OK?’), but even this poem is given space and quiet with use of em dashes and its gentle conversational tone. 

   These are quiet controlled poems inspiring a desire to visit the riverscape cited. Simplicity and an air of melancholy are complemented by photographs which enhance these qualities, photographs in which there’s no glare of sunlight, no dazzle. I highly recommendThe English River. It is best read and reread cover to cover, but each poem also stands alone, powerful in its own right, speaking directly of love and loss without succumbing to ornate or melodramatic language. I found myself breathing slowly as I read.

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‘The Skin Diary’ by Abegail Morley

This is an impressive collection full of echoing motifs: birds flutter through the pages, references to anatomy abound, animal and human worlds collide, and poems move from air (for instance in 'Summer', 'Nesting in the wardrobe', 'Bleeding', 'The winter gatherer', and 'The Ice Hotel') to rain ('Summer’s end in Hackney', 'After you’ve died', 'Afterwards in ink', and 'Night planting'). The Skin Diary is a collection of poems, fifty-seven in all, which create a sense of emptiness and loss, starting as it continues with a sense of what is spoken at the end of the opening poem, ‘I miss you, I miss you.’ ('Before you write off your imaginary sister').

Loss, and the threat of it, permeates the collection. This loss is not focused on one person, rather it shifts and comes to settle variously on, for instance: the missing imaginary sister; an imaginary friend ('Losing Elena'); the ‘he’, and ‘you’ as an oncology patient (‘The Oncology Community'); ‘the lake of lost children’ (‘Counter turn’) and the stranger in the train whose funeral the narrator considers, ‘I can’t help wondering what name they’ll grind // on your gravestone,…’ (‘Paddock Wood to Charing Cross’).

The collection is punctuated with references to warnings of heartbreak ('The carrier bag', ‘Post-'), disappearance, drowning ('Mayday'), and death ('Pause’). These forebodings build tension and add poignancy to later poems in which disappearance or death are faced, ‘But this morning I lie awake // You’re still unvarnished, unravelled in my temporal lobe –', ('Forgetting you'); ‘We didn’t know how drunk you were / At St. Peter’s Bridge, standing on the edge’ ('Presence'); and in the extremely moving ‘text’, ‘But you weren’t back. Later. Or ever.’

The motif of eggs, and poems about fertility and fertilization, highlight another poignant loss. These poems are made beautifully memorable through references to the sea, '...You're the thinness / that laps shorelines at night when oceans / hanker after dunes, barge up beaches...'  ('Miracle').

Throughout, a sense of liminality and space is created, whether on a staircase such as in ‘Brighton flat’, ‘Last night’, or ‘Living with Bats’(‘I’m listening for your tread / on the stairs'), or in the raw exposure of the insides of the body in poems such as ‘The Archive of Lost Lives’, ‘After the funeral’, ‘The horologist and the body clock’, or in imagination akin to magical realism, 

‘I touch his sleeve
and it comes to life,
like it’s full of swallows,

swifts, nightjars
nesting in its folds –’ ('Jacket'),
and,
‘I said everything I could before you stopped me,
sifted skin through hourglass after hourglass –’  

('Time Keeper')

The Skin Diary as a collection provides insight. It's a journal of survival despite loss, and closes with a charm-like poem,

‘…I plant for you / agapanthus, dahlia, harebell,’. Raw reality is contained between the imaginative, magical first and last poems. Throughout thoughts are raised about the power of the imagination, and of spell-like charms to help to elevate us above loss and longing.

Read More
Contrast and Contradiction: Review of 'Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament' by Geraldine Clarkson

With its sensual language, Geraldine Clarkson’s second pamphlet draws the reader into its oneiric world. In ‘Nuala, Nuala, Nightwatchman’s Daughter’, ‘Days Round like the Moon’, ‘Triptych’, ‘Bridal’, and ‘the last thing’, the book has an artery of references to Christianity, more specifically Catholicism, and opens with a poem creating a sense of otherworldliness, ‘I had a red silk cloth for a mother / …We lived at the end of a / stick.’ (‘Biography’)

This otherworldliness continues in a myriad of ways throughout, and held me captivated even in places where I didn’t fully understand all I read. The reader is lured by the language, surreal qualities and unusual decisions in relation to punctuation (in ‘a young woman undressed me and’, there are no upper case letters, giving a sense of hastily recorded memories shared intimately).

Imagery is powerful and memorable and creates a sense of an inner world,

‘Last night I dreamt I was a cake, a squat brown gateau
dimpled with cherries above a piped creamy smile. Inside,
falling-away fudge, and smudgy…’ 

                                                (‘Mise en Gâteau’)

and,

‘she touched my lip with a shapely thumb: shhh
don’t fret. her voice like jinxed june breezes
in lime leaves. and then. her voice like rills rushing over flint’  

(‘a young woman undressed me and’)

 There is a beautiful musical quality to the poetry, exemplified in the title poem,

‘… (they mate, like carapaces, in parentheses),
Dora feels coolness in new places, lifts a reused
razor shell, mother-of-pearly and straight’

(‘Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament’)

and also in ‘A-Man-at- a-Bus-Stop sees a Perfect ‘O’’, where, in addition to the title, every line begins with ‘A’, followed by ‘m’, (Amanatta, American, ampersands, a mutilated, a mayfoil,  Amitriptyline, amateus, A.m.), and reaches a crescendo with ‘amo / amo / amo’.

Reading the poem has a dizzying effect and, placed as it is after two poems dealing with confinement, a sense of hope and playfulness.

It’s a book of contrasts between a sense of containment and freedom, between the inner and outer world, and explores female desire with emphasis on the female body (‘a young woman undressed me and’, ‘caress’, and ‘The thing about Grace and Laura’).

It’s a short but sumptuous pamphlet to be read in one go at first:  lose yourself in it, then return and peel back the layers, dive underwater, revel in the world, in the confinement and the escape.

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A Lament for the Division of Hearts: Review of 'At the Time of Partition' by Moniza Alvi

Moniza Alvi’s book length poem in twenty parts, set in 1947 at the time of the partition of India and Pakistan, tells the story of a family’s migration to Lahore and is a lament movingly related which marries a personal story of loss with the fracture and trauma of a nation. 

The poem, with a steady pace generated by the use of short lined couplets which captures the sense of a journey, weaves historical fact, ‘Sir Cyril Radcliffe finalized the line / ... in the time / it takes to sort out a school timetable.’ (p. 12, The Line), stark fact about the change of religion in the city, ‘… the mass departure / of its Hindus and Sikhs, / to cope with the influx / of a million Muslim refugees.’ (p.46, On the Brink); with metaphor, ‘A line so delicate a sparrow might have / picked it up in its beak’  (p.12, The Line); and sums up how this beginning is an end too ‘…but for my grandmother / India draws away, irretrievably/ like the tide going out.’ (p.13)

Although predominantly structured in couplets, several sections end in single lines, creating a pause to reflect before moving onto the next section. For instance, ‘Lahore, still-beating heart of the Punjab,’ (p.47, On the Brink); and, ‘Nothing was certain.’ (p. 62, Continuing). Occasional use is made of single lines to create fracture and a sense of a chorus of voices, for instance at the loss of Athar,

We’re sorry they said,
the friends of friends.

So very sorry –
He isn’t with us –
He disappeared at –
He vanished between –
The last time we saw him –      

                                                 (p.39, The Camp)

 

One of the most powerful aspects of the poem is the use of contradiction and duality: ‘the-past-in-the-future’ (p.61, Continuing) ‘The risk of departing / and the risk of remaining’  (p.22, Ever After)

Alvi makes skillful use of repetition to create an incantatory effect. References to prayer, Allah, the sun, sky, and darkness, ‘Only the sun rose every day / with no sense of loss – / overcame its spectacular death / of the evening before.’ (p.46, On the Brink), along with a chorus of voices, form further refrains throughout the book. In Praying, reference to prayer becomes salvatory ‘she would build her house of prayer’, and ‘In the camp, the lifeline was prayer.’ (p.44)

It may seem strange to end my review of this book I highly recommend, with reference to the first section of the poem but the sense of an end being in the beginning was paramount to me as a reader. The first section, The Line, contains a seed of hope like a prophecy, ‘there will be a resurrection’; and although there isn’t what might be perceived as a happy ending to the poem; as we follow the grandmother’s story, her prayers and supplication, her movement through loss – from bewilderment – to ‘the fine escarpment of hope’ (p.61, Continuing), and the building of a life in Pakistan, there is a sense of some resolution in finding a new home, albeit not the same as that left behind, a sense reinforced by the repetition of lines from the first section, in the final section,  

‘A line so delicate a sparrow might have
picked it up in its beak’.  

                                                (p. 63, Crossing Back)

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Myth as a Source in Irish Poetry – The Hidden Word of Poetry by Adam Wyeth

First Published in Orbis 169
he Hidden Word of Poetry by Adam Wyeth.
147pp, Salmon Poetry, Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

Adam Wyeth’s book, The Hidden World of Poetry, comprising sixteen accessible but detailed essays, aims to showcase Ireland’s leading contemporary poetry, serve as a primer to analyse poems in depth, and to explore Celtic mythology’s exciting and popular heroes, gods and folktales.

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Matthew Sweeney, Twentyone Men and a Ghost

This review was originally published in Antiphon Issue 14

When I read Matthew Sweeney’s Twentyone Men and a Ghost, I understood his own comment, ‘The Men poems took me by surprise’. Although each man has characteristics which might seem familiar, aspects of a person we can recollect from experience in daily life, Sweeney’s men taken together are a menagerie, an image which is enhanced by the animals both familiar and exotic, which swarm through the book to an equally varied backdrop of music, taking in banjos, reggae and classical composers.

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