Sharks in the Presence of Hopes and Dreams

The Book of Hopes and Dreams, ed Dee Rimbaud
(122 pages, £9.99, Bluechrome)
In the Presence of Sharks: new poetry from Plymouth
eds Ian Robinson and Norman Jope
(192 pages, £10.00,The Phlebas Press)

Two anthologies: each with a very different flavour. What I find particularly heartening about Dee Rimbaud’s anthology ‘The Book of Hopes and Dreams’ is that the impetus for this publication is founded on something solid and useful ie raising money for a worthwhile charity. Allowing the possibility of indulging in hopes and dreams for the Afghani people provides the springboard for actor David Hayman’s Glasgow based charity Spirit Aid. Run by volunteers, its primary purpose to provide medical facilities and personnel in the province of Baglan in North Eastern Afghanistan. Contained within its pages are many poignant and heartfelt poems. Those that stand out for me are by writers who seem to have the knack of expressing very simply their belief in the power of the human spirit and what it can achieve under duress.

Moniza Alvi’s poem ‘War and Peace on Earth
which has a searing first half, by the end reads like an anthem to hope: ‘The enemy grabbed all the masks and disguised himself as anything he liked. / The lovely day, the harvest, a bunch of roses / suddenly went mad, exploded, bit you to death. / So many of us died that the crowds thronged below the earth rather than above it… /  All those in possession of a body/felt it turning into fog. / And each one tasted his own ashes in his mouth/ But one day people whispered to each other/peace has come… / The cart found its wheels again and the horse its forelegs / and hind legs for galloping. / The trees found their deeply buried roots and their sap, /no longer terrorised, started to flow/to the furthest twigs…/ .

Maggie Sawkin’s poem ‘Under a Stone’ is absolutely in keeping with the spirit of this anthology:

     you no longer know
     what it means

     to be a leaf under a stone.

     You’ve got too used
     to the cold slab weight of it.

     Absence of light
     has turned you
     into a wafer of veins

     a leaf shadow.
     One skipping day
     a child will come
     and kick away the stone.

     For a moment
     you will lie there,
     afraid of your own lightness

     afraid of what you’ve become,

     by the suddenness
     of a white winter sun.

This has to be relevant for a race which has endured the oppressive weight of years of damaging wars and who are denied the most basic human rights of employment, enough to eat, education for women and even the most basic medical care. 

There are many notable poems in this anthology, including a favourite of mine, Carol Ann Duffy's ‘Prayer’ – a supremely comforting poem. ‘Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer / utters itself. So, a woman will lift / her head from the sieve of her hands and stare / at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift. // Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth/enters our hearts, that small familiar pain; / then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth / in the distant Latin chanting of a train… // . The faithless, those whose faith is particular to them only, those who have lost faith, become disillusioned (Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ comes to mind) Duffy’s poem must surely speak to anyone starved of comfort and security.  

Vicki Feaver’s poem ‘Glow-worm’, albeit (I presume) a love poem, describes particularly well the effort required to build up the power of resistance. In her case she employs the metaphor of a glow worm at the stage in its life cycle where it’s concentrating on building up its strength, but it could equally well apply to the human condition: ‘Wingless, wordless, / in a flagrant and luminous bid/to resist the pull to death, she lifts / her shining green abdomen / to signal
yes yes yes.’ K.V.Skene’s ‘Bliss’ is exhilarating and invigorating: ‘Take off, / face the blue wind, / flaunt your new wings\above a stale world… // Behind you roars the bloody dawn, cheering you on.’

This uplifting and confident tone pervades the anthology, and although there are maybe just a few too many poems, some of which have subject matter only tenuously connected to the theme, taken as a whole, it provides a very positive sense of optimism against all the odds. The impressive rollcall of poets who have donated their poems to this cause indicate that they share the aspirations of Spirit Aid. Of course it can never be enough simply to donate a poem to broadcast the existence of a particular charity, but at least it’s a start and this book will bring a lot of pleasure to those who buy it and spread the word.


Norman Jope’s ‘Preface’ to the second anthology which introduces new poetry from a group of Plymouth based poets ‘In the Presence of Sharks seems to raises quite other expectations in the reader, the title alone is enough to raise anxieties. It appears that the poets of this Plymouth based group live, literally, in the presence of sharks. Not only those fishy or nuclear ones who inhabit the sea, but in the current turbulent environment of a modern city with all its urban conundrums. Upholding the banner of the post-modernist Language poets as several of them do, means that their work requires a degree of engagement; which could, for some readers, be quite a challenge. This is anticipated in an after word by Alan Munton which aims with moderate success to throw some light on the motivation and interests of the various contributors.

I would guess that some of these poets may not appeal so readily to the potential readers of
The Book of Hopes and Dreams – an altogether more lyrical affair. But maybe the Plymouth group – some of them at least – are using a different scale of reference – maybe what could be described as barriers to understanding, erected by their word play, multi-referenced commentary on modern life, should not be perceived as barriers at all, but challenging atonal compositions which demand a rigorous and determined intellectual effort. 

On closer inspection, however devoted each of them is to their particular notation, I detect echoes of a more harmonious outlook amongst the stronger (in my opinion) contingent of women contributors. It’s a consoling thought, that wherever you land on the poetry scale, you can find someone who is playing your kind of music. Helen Foster delivers a punch with her poems: ‘Today dropped out of yesterday and landed awkwardly / blunt as a club…/ / yesterday streamed with greetings / flags and baby rabbits // Then tore itself up by the roots // Here am I / snagged on it.’ Jope mentions in his preface that there are two different strands in this book, and the women writing here certainly seem more interested in aspects of inner and outer landscapes than in linguistics.

This more sympathetic and accessible approach to writing creates a welcome diversity within the collection and comes as a relief after the effort required particularly as regards Philip Kuhn’s work. His layout and inventive use of text reminded me of the futurists ‘words in freedom’ or experiments or the wilder shores of Dada. Though ingenious and containing some excellent individual lines, it left me unmoved; even the footnotes supplied at the end failed to excite me.

Over the years I have come across Tim Allen, Steve Spence and Norman Jope reading their work and willingly gone along with their sound effects and word play - they can at times be diverting and playful, what I do wonder is, whether there is still mileage in this grappling with linguistics and whether there might be some way of using it as the basis to lift off into some more rewarding post-postmodernist mode; just a thought. In Tim Allen’s case, what seems to be on offer is a kind of fiendish game of word play, with snatches of quotation and famous names abounding. ‘A Panglossian Sequence of Little Riots’ is a long poem divided into several sections and it is maybe unfair to quote a small section, but here goes anyway…

     We are going to Spain too late to fight fascism
     but we are going all the same and we’re going
     to fight fascism

     I’ve no fear of inhuman splendour but
     Religious music is a hospital trolley

     Glass bones
     Names I’ve seen before but never heard
     Anxious proposals
     A certain postcard taste…

The surreal proximity of abstract ideas conjoined with everyday objects is all very fine, but seems somewhat arbitrary, with no intellectual thread that I can find to provide some sense of connectedness to the poem’s genesis, any kind of insight or the means to move me on in some positive way.

Steve Spence’s work is more focussed, his poetry bounds along with great verve and pace. Building up a head of steam with his repetitious forms: in the last stanza of ‘Haven’t a thought in my Head’:

     …haven’t surfaced the ocean floor
     haven’t tendered a steak resignation
     haven’t armed the forces with cricket mats again
     haven’t heard the lawn chorus
     haven’t researched the ten remand tents
     haven’t the right to rewrite polite trite

But again (in this selection of his poetry) I find he tends to rely on formulas to a large extent, which are all very well, but could perhaps turn out to be a bit of a straitjacket.
Kenny Knight really needs to be seen and heard (unlike children) to fully appreciate his whimsical and amusing approach to the absurdity of life and I enjoyed Chris Deakin’s quirky poems.

If you feel like a challenge and catching up with the Plymouth writers this is the book for you.
The Book of Hopes and Dream’ is a must, just read the introduction and you’ll know why you should own a copy or maybe two or three to send to friends. I’d like to quote Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ written on the 31st December 1900 as an end piece for these, the darkest days of a dark year:

      So little cause for carolings
          Of such ecstatic sound
     Was written on terrestrial things
          Afar or nigh around,
     That I could think there trembled through
          His happy good-night air
      Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
          And I was unaware.    

                 © Genista Lewes 2006