BURNING WHINS by Liz Niven, 110pp, £8.99, Luath Press, 543/2 Castlehill, The
Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2ND
POEMS 1990-2003 by Harriet
Tarlo, 161pp, £9.95, Shearsman
Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter EX4 4LD
BLACK FLAME by Sara Boyes, 22pp, £3.00, Hearing Eye, P O Box 1, 99 Torriano
Avenue, London NW5 2RX
THE GLAZE FROM BREAKING by Joanne
Merriam, 78pp, £7.50, Stride
Publications, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter EX4 6EW
WALKING TO SNAILBEACH by Pauline
Kirk, 104pp, £8.95, Redbeck Press,
24 Airville Road, Frizinghall, Bradford BD9 4HH
THE LION IN THE FOREST by Kathleen
McPhilemy, 85pp, £7.95, Katabasis,
10 St Martin's Close, London NW1 0HR
Titles with Flame and Burning lent a warm allure to this pile of books during the dark evenings
when my corner of the north west was left without power by mid-January's
storms. Now, while it is
perfectly possible to read by tilting a page close to your candle or storm
lantern, this isn't the ideal condition for a reviewer's work. The writing
would have to be very good to
take your mind off the discomforts of cold and dark.
Burning Whins sounded
attractively hot. I could quite see why the editor sent me this one: he hopes
I'll realise there's no need to regale him with any more happy Highland
tourist tales, as Liz Niven opens with a section commissioned by Highlands
and Islands Ltd about flights from one small Highland airport to another. The
tone is light, amused. And yes, she flies to 'Barra Airport', enjoying the
absurdity of filling in a questionnaire about airport services when what you
do there is land on the beach:
continue on the other side if necessary.
side takes on
meaning, I must have been good in another life
for this one
I'm now in has brought me to Barra.
We wander around the island meeting people:
fanatic in the Guest House
is in love,
too, with the Barra flight.
A tall man
from a London Alms House
of the Kisimuil Galley,
leaves me, a
stranger, to mind the shop
dashes home for a CDRom.
The pleasure I've taken in the airport poems has been the same sort I take
from reading a travel column about somewhere I know in a Sunday paper. No new
insight, but the memory refreshed - one poem is a list of Orkney's
distinctive place names. The writing even sounded like travel journalism as I
sat by the fire.
Another section of the book takes us more widely across Scotland, and
includes some Scots. (I'm no judge of whether this contributes to 'the
development of modern Scots' as the blurb says. It's easier reading than some
Scots poems.) In a long poem triggered by the foot and mouth outbreak, two
hills speak to each other about the pyres, one in Scots, the other in English.
The device keeps the voices distinct of course, but it's not one I enjoyed:
the languages are (at least as I read them) rhythmically different. There's
Scots too in the final section, 'Found Objects', poems that didn't fit into
the earlier sections. These are not poems to get heated about. 'Student'
At the street
of the flats,under
full of Freshers,
a first University term.
boxes of books,
changed since my days here)
The lights are on now, so I can see it wasn't my eyes playing tricks with
spacing and spelling. There's something so flat about the writing though,
that I keep going back to find what I've missed.
In the cold and dark, 'Life by Fire' in Harriet Tarlo's Poems 1990-2003 sounded a good thing. This is a short sequence of
otherwise untitled poems - more than half the book is made of such sequences,
sometimes with only two or three poems to them. There's plenty of space
around these in a Shearsman-sized book, whole pages for the sequence titles
and blank versos as well. This sort of spacey opulence really orchestrates
your expectations. Here's the whole of the first poem in the sequence:
warmth a few feet
Yes! That's what it's like sitting by the fire in the dark. But does this
merit such a fanfare of paper? The poems are stripped down to bones like
these arranged over the page - I've probably squished the lines up too much
here - and offered as a
significant essence. Maybe. But if I am going to contemplate in the way these
bones demand, I think I'd like something just a bit more significant. Either
that, or muscle and nerve.
Fire, or at least coal, features strongly: another sequence ('Lumley
Opencast') is organised around an open cast mine. 'Maine Coast' is a travel
sequence. 'Valley' is a sequence of five poems of Morton Woods in Holm Valley
- five snapshots, at different times of year: 'October
beech leaves falling slow // like snow starting but gold bright weight filling out
ground'. This type of
condensation seems to make the poem depend on its nouns and gerunds for a
descriptive, impressionistic snapshot of landscape - 'snapshot' because
that's what they feel like, frozen moments.
After Tarlo's 'Fire' and Niven's Burning, I tried some Flame,
though Black Flame didn't sound
all that warm. This is a 16-poem pamphlet by Sara Boyes. Black features
strongly throughout: black flames, black petals, black fire, black night,
shirt, hairs, river, silk, trousers, mud. The poems 'explore the theme of
obsessive love' (blurb) - so this piling up, this repetition is a way of
enacting in language how stifling that can be. I was going to say that I
admired the consistent and recurrent imagery, but maybe all that black's a
bit much. Other themes are revisited a little more sparingly, like walls for
instance. It may not sound all that original, a wall between lovers, but the
one that opens 'Excavation' certainly is:
of his mouth
a brick wall
and fell in a
She writes particularly well of the yes/no, on/off extremes of passion and of
doubts coexisting with desire. In the title poem, she wants to reach through
the wall between them, 'but doesn't know how'. The poem takes off when it
moves on from its metaphors and abstractions:
He is telling
her - if he felt like it,
one day, he
would suggest going to the sea.
He tells her, too much routine is not
a good thing.
I enjoyed 'Romantic Notions' which both speaks from within and outside
passion, longing for it, doubting it and then considering a different sort of
love. It is the third line of this stanza that surprises with an outward and
the day by day loving?
about her father,
A fine sense of ambivalence
saves Sara Boyes from lovesickness. Joanne Merriam saves herself by travelling,
remembering, and by long lines and prose poems well-suited to Stride's new
square format books. Like Boyes, she is clear-eyed about a relationship, in
this case, one that is over:
saying I loved you, and later saying I didn't anymore.
the way the snow skating over the pavement made
faded as we named them. I remember crying. I remember
One of the ways she works is through accumulations like this, through lists.
'Somewhere' and 'sometime' are springboards; the poem 'With Every Step' opens
each paragraph with a 'sometime' in a particular year allowing her to skate
around the previous 30 years or so:
1991 Susan and I leave an anti-war rally when people
1982 one of my classmates takes a photograph of Dale
hanging by our knees from the climber dome. The sun is
through my blonde hair upsidedown and...
your eye neatly off the fact she's in the aftermath of a
and that what she is doing now is all about the present
next paragraph is getting over things:
2004 I eat fried green tomatoes for the first time. They
grease and sunshine.
Listing / concentrating on the moment sounds determinedly positive in 'Things
I'd Have Thought You Were Crazy If you'd Told Me Then I'd Be Doing Them Now'
- which are things like
for five weeks
in the summer of 1992, selling beef over the telephone...
well to be
honest failing to sell beef...and then managing to quit
I'm not taken with all of Joanne Merriam's listings. The section 'calendar of
dreams', with a (brief) prose poem of images for each month of the year,
appeals less, but then I generally think other people's dreams are their
business, events which remain ineluctably their own.
The rather dull browns and ochres of 'Walking to Snailbeach' had me slipping
it to the bottom of the pile. This is a substantial Selected and New, drawing
on poems Pauline Kirk has written over the last 20 or so years. The blurb
says 'There is nothing flashy or esoteric about Pauline's consistently
well-crafted work and its appeal is not only for poetry aficionados.' I
agree, but that's not much of a commendation. The language is ordinary. No
fireworks and surprises there. The poems are well-crafted. No risks. Yes, it
would appeal to other than 'poetry aficionados' - I'm sure it would go down
well at my local W.I.
On my fiery theme there's 'Candles', a recent poem which opens with the line
'I have carried many candles down my life' and then goes on to list examples.
You know with this sort of poem
before you get there that its second stanza is going to continue 'But
tonight, as I light this frail taper'.
The voice can sometimes have a slightly old-fashioned formality to it. It's
subjects are domestic moments, memories, school photographs, elderberry wine,
relations, travels, recollections. Kirk is the only writer among these six
who isn't pursuing a theme in a substantial exploration. There is one short
sequence of 'Pictures from an Old Suitcase' and it has some nice moments: 'As
I turn the card over / my own handwriting surprises'. But too often I'm told
the long-vowed 'sorting-out'
dust of memory.
remind me of
places and people
I know, but
do not recognise...
Kathleen McPhilemy's The Lion in the Forest opens with a sequence on the theme of 'Home' -
hearth and home - so I'm still with my fireside theme:
heart is, where the hearth is
home is where
she is, but what she knows
the heart is
in the body and hers has changed so much.
McPhilemy is prepared to take a few risks, but her language can run away with
her so that I sometimes wonder what it is that is being said here. But she is
also capable of sharpness, as in the smaller poem 'Door' in which she writes
in the voice of a door aware of what is taking place on each of its
sides: 'Like a horse or a hen /
I have eyes in the side of my head.'
She is also prepared to take the risk of bringing politics into poetry. The
third section of the book comprises 'A Suite for Palestine' and 'A Sequence
for Iraq'. The Palestine poems are underpinned and given distance by a
structure which is 'Based on images borrowed from the poems of Paul Celan'.
This starts to seem complicated when she explains that the poems are 'triangulated'
between Celan (German Jewish), herself (British Irish) and the conflict in
the Middle East. Its opening ('Tallow') confuses me before it engages me:
When you were
burning so low
horse in the forest
leaf to leaf;
or was it a
the teeth of darkness
Iraq's poems are underpinned by the Catholic Church's Tenebrae
Responsories for the days leading
up to Easter - these are set out in full in both Latin and English in an
appendix. Titles are taken from the Latin text, as in
Not one hour,
not one eye open!
there to wait for?
What was the
point in watching?
One by one
the sets flickered off.
This comes closer to success. I admire the endeavour: it's an interesting way
of coming at the political, and something to think about.
My lights flickered back on after the best part of a week. Looking over my
candlelit notes about these books, most of them seem to be a low level
grumble that I couldn't find more to get heated about.
© Jane Routh 2005