RAW SKIES by Nigel Wheale, 148pp, 9.95, Shearsman
by Anthony Hawley, 115pp, 8.95, Shearsman
by George Messo, 84pp, 8.95, Shearsman

Nigel Wheale's Raw Skies is a new and selected which draws on nearly 30 years' worth of writing, and writing in great variety - he gives us the Orcadian seascapes on his doorstep, poems about Gwen John's painting and her notebooks, alongside translations of (and notes about) early Arabic qasidas.

I know someone who'd enjoy this section, I thought, immediately wanting to pull the book apart. It would make excellent pamphlets. And then I read the small print: that's what it was. As a book, it's heterogeneous. But does that matter? If you're looking for a overall characterisation of a book and what it touches on, yes; it shifts about too much for me to do that.

The first section that I wanted to commend to a friend was 'The Plains of Sight', on Gwen John. Spare poems about John's life and paintings and collaged phrases from her notebooks are punctuated by prose discussions of her work, and quotations from review. There's a light touch here, and the prose 'exhibition note' makes it quite different from other poem-sequences about her.

Painting seems a longstanding interest of Wheale's. Another writer's own words are collaged in a recent poem 'Sea Notes' which the footnote says is 'lightly adapted from Borlaise Smart The Techniques of Sea Painting (1946)'. 'Lightly adapted' means that it sounds as if it stays close to the source material - though one longs for it to take off from phrases in its opening stanza:

     There are no tricks in sea painting
     no short cuts to success as a sea painter.
     I intend to analyse waveform through my responsive medium,
     sweeping in the main lines with a flowing brush of thin Ivory Black.
     Too much detail would suggest the sea stood still to be portrayed.

This poem is among a group at the beginning of Raw Skies set on Orkney, so this is a parcel of poems I should keep for myself. There are some stunning lines:

     A gentle inbreath as two hundred wings
     unfold to beat them upwards...
            ['Goose Field']

     Rises stuttering, a seeded trail of cries
     flung between the green and the grey,
             ['Curlew Glide']

but I'd like to hear Nigel Wheale read them. Sometimes you can hear a writer's voice straight away, but his is a voice in which I don't readily hear the rhythms, I think because at times there's more clotted description than I can take in -

     Self-possessed night-waves pulse to the bay shore
     like veins moving under darkened indian skin
     over which free-loading surfers busk in dayglo suits
     sporting ditzy miner's lamps at bronzed foreheads.
              ['Arroyo Real']

There's simpler language in much of Anthony Hawley's The Concerto Form
. He shares a landscape theme with Nigel Wheale but handles words and space quite differently. In this section (below) of
' "Awhile"- Field Guide for Voices' he points straightforwardly to the naming of landscape that stands for its forms. I'll show you the whole of section 4:

     Fork Devil's

     The frying-


     Savage and
     Lost Man

     Difficult Creek

     Waters named for

     shapes or

     How deny
     such blue

I like this, but maybe not enough for a whole page. And there's something familiar about this territory: has Peter Finch been here? Or maybe I'm thinking of Hamish Fulton? Like him, Anthony Hawley refers to himself 'in the field': 'For hours walking without a sign / without a sentence', though he goes nowhere near as far into the visual arrangement of words as Hamish Fulton when he's registering the out-there and in-here: near the opening of the same poem for instance comes (and the brackets are part of it):

     Something's in my shoes (...)

     Monkshood                          Larkspur
     Red     Columbine                Forget-
     Me-Not, first three
     of one family

Several pieces are built up from intense moments of perception. 'New England Pictures: Outline for an Opera with No Persons' is made of ten brief units written at different times in a year and which refer to signs that 'persons' have made. It ends by referring back to the beginning, as the seasons do. 'Vesuvian Texts: Outline for an Opera with Two Persons' is fifteen short prose poems alternating the (quite different) experience of the Two Persons although the 'opera' 's stage directions are also written in. It opens:
'lift the curtain to ethers hovering rising across morning a scene torn with sunbursts...', then shifts about between the Two Persons, and comments 'how one misses the other who never knew about the arrival'.

The language is presented almost note-form, which makes you read quickly. Yet it needs to be read slowly. Note-form does not mean spare language. Below is the third piece from 'Afield' (whole page, text at the top); read slowly and you'll be less irritated by overdosing on alliteration:

     Field flickers faint glowworm's signal
     dogwood timber's lit turned on
     star-studded we crawl and cower
     through spangled grass fugitive flash
     canopied watch flies fringe our every
     odd move a neighbouring flare

I'll take a stanza from George Messo's 'A Trabzon Orchard' in Entrances for comparison. The natural world and reflection are here too, but this sounds effortless:

     Earth smells rising up.
     A week of rain unbinds
     a summer mountain, cools
     a sense left sleeping there.

Interestingly George Messo's title poem names a contradiction in writing about the natural world: 'Bored, as you are, with constant re-description/.../- you opt to leave the afternoon / and step, one naked foot, into the Choruh river.'

Although George Messo teaches in Oman, he worked previously in Turkey. And Saudi Arabia. The poems are set around the Black Sea. Obviously this enables him to refer to a particular and different kind of landscape, vegetation, mountains, but it also puts him in the position of out-of-context observer. What is noticed may be small; it is held up and has to be accounted for: 'A landscape closing in to accent each / particular thing' is how he puts it in the first section of 'too little where'

     How suddenly it changed, Was barely
     light when he set out; time, he hardly
     knew. Trees ahead. An overwhelm-
     ing wood. The freshness of his walk.
     A landscape closing in to accent each
     particular thing.

There are a few poems like 'too little where' written in note-form but most are not. All of them, though, share a delicate choice of particulars held up to be wondered at, particulars whose import often lies just beyond what can be explained:

     Today is not the day to leave. By some concocted chance
     in a smoke-filled tea-house far from now, we'll understand
     who sent us here, and why, and what it meant to stay.
              ['First There is Morning']

These three are all good-looking books, different shapes, interesting covers. Entrances
is the smallest of the three (the page count's misleading; there are several blanks), but this is the one that leaves me wanting more.

               Jane Routh 2006