Caws (£7.99, 75pp, bluechrome)
The Oracle Room, Fred Johnston (£7.99, 96pp, Cinnamon)
A Stone's Throw, James Caruth (£5.00, 65pp, Staple)
The first thing that
struck me about Ian Caws' The Canterbury Road was the understated technical skill, a
restrained and formal sense of rhythm and rhymes so pleasingly unobtrusive
it's a paradox they should have initially distracted me from the content of
the poems. For these are poems
that go about their business in a confident and unshowy way, speaking
lyrically and subtly, not in a confessional voice but in a personal one which
expresses the poet's sensibilities and pre-occupations. This is work haunted
by what's not there. For instance a widower adjusting to absence:
some cushions, rearranged the chairs,
mind of all remembered things while
it seemed, tidied every room
entered, conferred, like a stranger's stare,
of unease, something hot, like shame.
[All In The Morning Early]
The collection is coherently put together, poems following naturally on, one
from another. Whilst the
ostensible subject matter is varied - rural sketches, history, early
christianity, music making and art and artists - the overall theme remains
consistent, the sense in our lives of another world, elusive and missed:
remained Jimmy's though never played
talked of it though never heard.
In the end what he addresses is mortality:
goes, each week a little faster,
dance at the end of his fingers
puppets, unsure where they came from
songs we hear and who the singers.
Books of poetry should perhaps not be read through in one sitting, by reviewers
or anyone else. And in this case the repeated theme, engaging as it is in
itself, began to lose impact as the book progressed. Better undoubtedly to
take it in smaller measures for, as William Oxley comments on the back cover:
'his poems are subtle and blended like the finest malt whiskies - it takes a
while to sort out the echoes, the suggestions, the allusions from each other,
to get the full flavour of meaning - but the result is very rewarding.'
Fred Johnston's The
Oracle Room is also a book I
found increasingly rewarding the more I read. Mature and thoughtful writing,
varying in form and subject, with an easy musical quality, something of the
Irish gift. I gave up on the reviewer's need to find a way in to do it
justice and simply enjoyed myself. The writer has a taut focus on life, able
to see beyond the surface and present the world he lives in with a surprising
and often unnerving twist.
puck-devil grinning on a branch,
standing in the middle
in the eyes of the new:
Scarier this last
Than the other two.
And there's a poem titled 'The Kafka Prize for Poetry' which consists of a
list of competition entry rules. You read it expecting a twist, but these are
the normal rules we play by; the twist's in the title. In the one or two
poems about poetry itself he is keenly aware of the marginality of poetry,
and yet the pieces in this book which engage with major events or social
issues like the July 7th bombing, political demonstrations or
sexual abuse are perceptive, humane and authentic.
He has the gift of sympathetic realism. In 'Fantasy' a young waitress in a
lunch-time workers' cafˇ wipes a table and 'frees small breasts the
colour/and shape of your chipped cup'. 'A young lad, waving an empty glass,
tries out being a man.'... 'demands something she cannot hear,' This is a place
of 'rough hands roughing up the heart.'
Even with poems I don't quite understand, and there aren't many of those, it
is sufficient to enjoy the lilt of the voice and the imagery,
with the woman in the post office
who has a
question balanced on her lips for you, and
day tip it out into the air from behind her wire veil.
[There is No Need]
He seems fond of epigraphs and dedications, and while these are sometimes
lost on me, I nonetheless enjoy them for the way they place the poem in the
context of a lived life and well-read mind. There is a limpid intelligence, a
compassionate but clear eye at work here in serious poems at ease with
There's a danger
with James Caruth's A Stone's Throw that you'll have no choice but to read it from cover to cover. Not
that it's a narrative, but these direct and accessible poems are compelling
in their craft and authenticity. I could sense the man himself speaking there
in each of the poems, and yet he's managed to remain sufficiently objective
to keep the writing taut and well-pitched.
The book divides into four sections. The first, Migration, focuses on place, movement and belonging.
'On the grey mud-flats/ Brent geese are gathering, /cropping the last
ell-grass, /dipping into their own reflections.' [Migration]. There is a poem
using moths as a symbol of transience. Nothing new here, but it's the
language and cadence that keeps it fresh with 'a pennyweight of dust that burns/ to nothing in the
heart of a star.'[Moths] And where a father considers the tension between his
child's need for freedom and his need to protect 'my feral daughter confined/
to the garden's puzzle.'[Alice in the Garden] he has the ability to compress
complex emotions into a simple form.
Listen, the second
section, addresses relationships and solitude. In 'A Father Teaches his Son
to Draw' he says 'I bring you back again,// tie you to a string from a pencil
point;/ for you will outline all our lives.' and the poem ends aspirationally
with 'a line so suddenly sublime/ that it will take your breath away.'
But it is in the last two sections that the book seems to gather power.
Section three, Gleaners,
concerns itself with the poet's relationship with his parents. Among
individual poems about both parents, there are two moving sequences about his
mother. In 'Seven Studies' each poem takes off from the title of a painting
by Celia Paul. Here the poet displays not only compassion and sensitivity but
also unflinching honesty:
knapped an edge to us
cut to the bone.
it on my tongue,
could bear no more.
day she broke
replied -it's you should know;
In the final section Lodestone, he examines his ambivalent relationship with his roots, Ulster and
its sectarian tensions.. The first poem sets a scene with
what you say exactly.
whether or not you spell
aitch or haitch that marks you down
as one or
the other, Taig or Prod.
Jesus himself, would need
his step; need to know
never to return
And to be
spelt out Heaven and Hell.
The first of three short pieces about Patrick Finnucane, the murdered Belfast
solicitor, has a tone not dissimilar to Heaney's in 'Station Island':
'Forgive me, I mean no harm/ but this torn face unnerves you.' [Finnucane
Appears as Casper at the Adoration]. And when he travels back to his roots
with his son who has been brought up in England, there are difficult
contradictions to explain.
driving home when he says
the next corner
on a gable
wall, a brick canvas
it written - Saorise.
And in a
A well-known film director once described how he wanted his films to exercise
the audience's emotional muscle. James Caruth does this with these poems.
© Mike Barlow 2008