Maggie Sullivan (52pp, £10, Waterloo Press)
Janet Sutherland (76pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
Continental Drift, Nancy Gaffield (86pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
Alice Miller (72pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
The Lost Boys,
Victoria Field (59pp, £10, Waterloo Press)
poets are out in coracles, there is no land in view. They try to communicate.
Victoria is lost. Her verse is too literal to scale the cresting wave.
Landscape observation is a blunt instrument after too much self-reflection
against the consumed and consuming sea-scape. Her papier mâché oars
dissolve in the relentless sprays of salt-water. The remaining poets cover
coracles over with calf hide and wait it out.
Maggie is the first to emerge, she brings out her form and twists it
cleverly, building a sail, but the storm leaves it pocked with holes. She
comments on this, enjoys it.
Nancy sets up her metronome and plays the waves like a piano, words skipping
in a chaos that requires no direction.
Meanwhile, Alice ponders origin - 'How did we get here?' - becalmed and
drifting sightlessly, sea blind and, at times, desperate for the bump of
Janet summons up a god and that god is so terrible and charming that he pulls
all of the little boats, defenceless, towards the rocks they resist with
salt-sore arms, the water licking high.
Maggie Sullivan's the remote plays with ideas of place and form. There is
an emphasis on the domestic, the absurdity close to home. Poems about mapping
out her route in footsteps from the zebra crossing to the bus, a discourse
with the supermarket about cheese and a rigid villanelle about free-verse
embody the sense of an underlying anarchy imposed upon. Her gentle, honest
humour warmly reveals the absurdity of existence. 'Politics of form', a
strictly constructed villanelle, is the juxtaposition trying to keep the
collection together. It rails against form within a rigid structure:
Desist. Add a twist Turn
every instinct to comply.
I say decline
to turn a poem into a
It doesn't entirely hold the collection together but perhaps that's part of
its awkward charm.
Sutherland has created an altogether different beast. Bone Monkey is full of grotesque,
pungent images and an overarching concept that draws an engrossing
character-based collection tightly together. Through her primordial god,
Sutherland explores ideas of origin, violence, death and eternal life:
Bone monkey had grown old
- the time had come
to shuck his skin, to
slither out plump as a suckling pig,
to slip home like a lord.
These images repeat themselves throughout the collection. They grab you,
violent and ingratiating, just as Bone Monkey, rapist and murderer, does. We
experience Bone Monkey's aging, decaying body again and again; eternal
renewal without redemption:
and slit the shrivelled
leather at his throat.
He put his hands inside,
spread them apart
and climbed outside
himself. New tender flesh
smelt of ambrosia and was
He cast his old husk on
the waters, watched it sink
In 'As a god' we see Bone Monkey revel in his decay:
Bone Monkey knows himself
although his raddled arms, his
and buttocks seem to say
he's less than that.
He is a god regardless:
See how the light springs
from his beating heart.
Why would a god deny
Later, Sutherland gives us a new insight in 'Fire and fleet and
candle-lighte'; the god that wants to die, who can never know the sweetness
of release from the ruthlessness of existence:
Not knowing how to die he
hits the sack
and curls in foetal
pose, pretends he's dead.
… What he'd give
for silence and an end to
But still his ruthless
heart beats on. He lives.
Sutherland's collection resists allegory and easy conclusions. It is also
playful and darkly humorous; the grotesque intermingles smartly with the
absurd. As in 'He adopts the position of a stool pigeon', the image flicks
from amusing to hideous betrayal. Again, in 'Assemblage de Beautes',
Sutherland begins with the amusing image of our ungainly god in an airing
cupboard but quickly we are drawn back to something urgent and fleshly:
there is blood again and
a heart beating like crazy.
It's a strange, hauntingly prophetic piece of work.
I felt a
little like a 'feathered chorister' as I came from Bone Monkey to the
minimalist world of Nancy Gaffield's Continental Drifts. Gaffield recently
turned her last collection, Tokaido Road into a libretto and the musicality of
her work is also evident here. Her images of the Mesoamerican mix excitingly
with scenes from the Japanese invasion of China; overlapping meanings and
ideas come together in a symphony of noise, brokenly disjointed, portraying
suffering and growth.
She announces her intentions from the beginning:
aural symphony of plain
song, few notes, much repetition.
of a single bell.
here after a tone train
This is the prelude.
The end cry of a verse 'peripateo' stands like a religious pause in the script
and is then usurped by other repetitious pauses linking the desertscape where
the atomic bomb was tested with the horror of the bright light of the
Japanese 'pikadon' and interjections of the 'pikankan' acceptability of
rape by Japanese soldiers, during their invasion of China. This incredible
medley of images unearths countless meanings and associations, jumping back
and forth between myth, birdsong and human suffering. Gaffield reminds me of
the conductor from Fantasia, silhouetted against a dark screen, murmurs of
the orchestra behind. There are lots of different sections in Continental
they come together and leave you with a memory of symphony.
the limits by
Alice Miller similarly plays with ideas of spatiality; the limits of man and
the limits of the planet. Miller's collection uses biblical, historical and
geographical images to look at human interaction with landscape by blurring
the line between body and geography.
…Earth's curtains have
a frame for us that for
once I can't act myself
out of. I tried to write
our bodies in a play; but I confused
our parts; and had to try
to flee the stage
The world is breaking, and the limit of our understanding is within that
Earth curtain frame. In 'Apple', ecological destruction is joined with
religious ideas of knowledge. Miller's imagery is well-layered and
satisfyingly intelligent. And all of this is confined within the
claustrophobically limiting sense of the body.
© Sarah Cave