Sink or Swim


the remote, Maggie Sullivan (52pp, 10, Waterloo Press)
Bone Monkey
, Janet Sutherland (76pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
Continental Drift
, Nancy Gaffield (86pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
the limits
, Alice Miller (72pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
The Lost Boys
, Victoria Field (59pp, 10, Waterloo Press)


Five 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 their 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 land. 

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 anarchist. Quell
   every instinct to comply. I say decline
   to turn a poem into a Villanelle.

It doesn't entirely hold the collection together but perhaps that's part of its awkward charm.


Janet 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 sweetly curved.

   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 a God
  although his raddled arms, his ruined balls
   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 time's ravages?

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 everything.
   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:

   Feathered choristers utter
   the creed
                 aural symphony of plain
                 song, few notes, much repetition.
   Swell
   of a single bell.
                             Here before
   here after a tone train streaming
   meaning
                unlimited returns.  

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 Drift; 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 built
   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 2014