The Same Country
, Liz Cashdan [44 pp, £5, Five Leaves Publications]
Still Breathing
, Cathy Grindrod [42 pp, £5 Five Leaves Publications]

Liz Cashdan with The Same Country is a poet who will appeal to lovers of art in all its forms. She has a wide remit that includes painting, tapestry, pottery, needlework and architecture. Along with exploring the works of art she also enters the mind of the artist with tremendous empathy. The most successful of the poems are those that connect art with history, in particular when we see individual lives interwoven with the particular work of art. This is how - since her subject matter is often very specialised - she manages to universalise what might otherwise be of interest to a narrow audience. Finally, we see repeatedly in these poems how she provides a glorious explosion of the senses - sight and touch in particular.

Take the poem 'Red', a poem based on a textile by Michika Oka. Here she excels at showing the life that triggered the craft, as she says: 'I am looking for the story in your red tangle of threads'. The poem gives us exactly that as we are shown the texture of life and art sensuously intertwined:

     Now she is deep embroidering her wedding dress, poppies
     sewn on to red silk, and the threads shake out their flames.
     Then more long months of waiting for the boat until one day
     when the autumn trees are set alight, he will come, salt lips,
     hands coloured iron-rust, fish scales silvering his shirt.

One is struck here by the way we see a patterning of colour reflected both in life and art. We see something similar in  'Hannah Barraclough's Marriage Quilt 1821':

     ...She stitches closely,
     these coloured, cut-out octagons, joined
     by the broad bands of dark blue, covering

     frayed lives, 

Elsewhere she enters the minds of characters in certain paintings, such as in 'Resurrection' and here in 'Mary Elwell Paintings' an attempt to interpret the mother child relationship in the picture:

     She's got her feet propped up on the footstool
     as if to say this is my sofa, don't disturb please.
     I do like how she's got her hair pulled back

     and the way her stripy jacket matches the stripes
     on the cushion. Suppose it's a good painting.
     I wonder what would happen if I shouted really loud.

'Playing Fields' shows us the importance history has for her as we see her contrasting the younger self as school student for whom 'History can wait' and the adult observer in Prague where history is overwhelming:

     six girls dance in a green field, they hold hands,
     a pale sun sheds no light. The catalogue details
     Anita's life: born 1933, brought to Terezin 1942,

     deportation to Auschwitz October 1944

As one works through the poems the overriding feeling in this collection is an all-consuming passion for art and the process of art. In the 'At the Nahum Gutman Art Gallery' she has a gutsy way of showing the creative power of this Israeli artist:

     My son grew up among these canvases,
     watched the clenched fist of my painting
     gather in the people, gather in flowers, fruits
     in the orchards of Israel.

And note how her language brings out the physicality of his art as she goes on to describe how the tourists visiting his house in Tel Aviv: 'set their teeth into my red pomegranates, / bathe in the dark water of my orange grove pond. Similarly in 'Lustre: William de Morgan Tile-maker and Novelist', we see the sheer joy in creating reinforced describing the minutiae of the objects on the pottery: 

     I love the surprise of glaze -
     to be struck fresh from the kiln by the stare
     of leopard, the petting rabbits, hippos
     dropping tears, the eyes of astonished
     peacocks flattened on the tiles, necks stretched

     Water comes alive in the colours of lustre:
     sails billow wild over blue deeps,
     ship-oar and fish-fin cut the waves,
     cut through the tangle to things that count,
     not the counting of numbers , but the counting of
     shape and the story of shape.

This passion goes so far as to make you feel she cannot separate observation of the natural world from the her love of art: when it comes to landscape she manages to achieve art in reverse, such as in 'Branch Hill Pond Hampstead Heath':

                               - primed pink with grey

     overlay, the rain angled from scumbled clouds,
     letting it come down with wide brush strokes.

This is poetry that enables the reader to enter the feeling of the artist even if one has no particular interest in the visual arts:

To sustain the theme of parental death through an entire collection is no easy task but Cathy Grindrod in Still Breathing has been largely successful in doing just that. She offers us sharply observed poems that manage to steer clear of sentimentality for the most part. The book divides into three sections: the lead up to her father's death; immediate reactions to his death and funeral, and finally a section that combines a retrospective on her father's life and her own experience of adjusting to the loss. 

In the first section we see in 'Beginning Again' how she describes her father's decline with precise intimate detail: 'putting on the woollen glove/ unable to separate the fingers' and in the sequence 'Holding On' expresses moving resignation at his approaching death, as she starts on her personal journey of how she would like to remember him:

     Dad, go now, this clear white day.
     Find your walking shoes,
     A cairn to add a pebble to,
     Clean wind to whip your breath away.

These lines offer a tightly focused memory along with an affirmative sense of his return to the elements.

As we move into the second section one finds her attempt at a villanelle with 'Flowers for his Coffin' less successful:

     A garden for his coffin proudly grown
     A posy worked for him with care and skill
     They ask me why I cry. I do not know.

This poem fails both because of the bland repeating line: 'They ask me why I cry I do not know' (and surely she does know why) along with the clichˇd phrases: 'proudly grown' and 'care and skill'. She is on much safer ground when she just describes things how they are. Take the opening immediacy of 'Time to Go ' with the recognisable emotional impact of encountering soil at the graveyard, particularly harrowing in rain:

     Mud clinging to the soles of shoes,
     settling in treads.
     Later it will walk itself inside the house.

And there is also the rather wonderful 'Life goes On' with the child as metaphor for life's presence in the midst of death:

     Life Goes On

     Dressed in black, keeping death
     At arm's length, they make small talk,
     reaffirm their lives.

     Hands hold paper plates.
     A ponytail is bobbing underneath,
     unnoticed deft;

     weaves from group to group,
     inches through a narrow gap
     between the armchair and the dresser.

     There a small hand reaches out.
     Fills itself with cream meringue.
     A third time.

Sometimes less can be more and Grindrod would have been wise to omit the poem 'Howler' which immediately follows it, for it reinforces the same point less effectively taking a little from the preceding poem.  

The final section opens with a sharp, visually effective opener to what will be an attempt at telling his story:

     Picture This

     But now at night, I picture his grave,
     the river, the wet black trees,
     and he is Snow White in glass.
     This is his story.

In this sequence Grindrod does not fight shy of dealing with the obvious but unattractive fact that death by burial involves those left behind having to engage with the emotional impact of the body beneath the soil along with the practicalities of subsidence and the like, and she makes this an ongoing motif in the poems. In 'Rain' for example there is the suggestion of rain somehow forcing him back to her: 'pushing you for ever closer/to this raw raw loneliness of living.' Finally the most intriguing poem in the whole collection is 'This is the Woman' because it puts a number of questions in the reader's mind as to who the woman is. The suggestion is someone other than a wife but nothing is spelt out. In places it could have been cut back a bit but nevertheless it draws us in with its suggestions of the illicit in the story of a man who up to this point has sounded fairly conventional

     She would have asked those things
     which no-one ever asks,
     which no-one tells you, teaches you.
     She would have watched them take him,
     known what they are, those secret things they do.
     You don't want to know.
     She does, she does.

All in all Grindrod has been successfully in providing a sustained meditation on the nature of her loss.

These two collections taken together make plain that Five Leaves know what they are about. Though a small concern they are clearly providing poetry pamphlets that contain well edited quality poetry. If one believes there is a pecking order between the pamphlet and the full collection then this is a small press that proves without doubt that there shouldn't be.

         © Belinda Cooke 2007