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
by Sara Boyes, 22pp, 3.00, Hearing Eye, P O Box 1, 99 Torriano Avenue, London NW5 2RX
by Joanne Merriam, 78pp, 7.50, Stride Publications, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter EX4 6EW
by Pauline Kirk, 104pp, 8.95, Redbeck Press, 24 Airville Road, Frizinghall, Bradford BD9 4HH
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:

     We can continue on the other side if necessary.

     the other side
takes on
     a new 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:

     An airport fanatic in the Guest House
     is in love, too, with the Barra flight.

     A tall man from a London Alms House
     cycling round the Hebrides.

     Mrs McIntosh of the Kisimuil Galley,
     leaves me, a stranger, to mind the shop
     while she 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' begins

     At the street of the flats,under
     Autumn's confetti capers,there's
     no Parking Space left.

     The road's full of Freshers,
     parents, for a first University term.
     Cars disgorge boxes of books,
     kettles, cooking utensils,
     computers, even televisions,

     (things have changed since my days here)
     Teenage kids supervise manouevres.

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:

     living by fire only

     stone never
     gives in
     to fire                    warmth a few feet
                                 me    around

     cold walls
     cold glass

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:

     Suddenly, out of his mouth
     a brick wall came tumbling
     and fell in a large heap.

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 down-to-earth shift:

     What about the day by day loving?
     She thinks about her father,
     his handling of plants.

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:

     I remember saying I loved you, and later saying I didn't anymore.
     I remember the way the snow skating over the pavement made
     shapes that faded as we named them. I remember crying. I remember
     you crying.
          [from 'Auto Biographies']

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:

     Sometime in 1991 Susan and I leave an anti-war rally when people
     start burning their passports.

     Sometime in 1982 one of my classmates takes a photograph of Dale
     and me hanging by our knees from the climber dome. The sun is
     shining through my blonde hair upsidedown and...

     which takes your eye neatly off the fact she's in the aftermath of a
     relationship, and that what she is doing now is all about the present
     moment. The next paragraph is getting over things:

     Sometime in 2004 I eat fried green tomatoes for the first time. They
     taste like 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
     before being fired...

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 too much:

     I begin the long-vowed 'sorting-out'
     braving the dust of memory.
     Sharp corners of emotion
     catch my fingers,
     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:

     Where the 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
     unlightly you remembered
     the little horse in the forest
     leaping from leaf to leaf;
     or was it a unicorn
     white and only
     dancing on the teeth of darkness
     before you learnt history?

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

     Quid dormitis?

     Not one hour, not one eye open!
     What was 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