Transported, Overwhelmed & Paradiddled

Faulty Mothering, Elaine Randell (82pp, Shearsman)
Tigers at Awbitu, Sarah Broom (73pp, 9.95, Carcanet)
The Skiers, Jill Bialosky (138pp, Arc Publications)
The Shadow House, Kathy Miles (73pp, 7.99, Cinnamon Press)
Quaintness and other offences, Ann Drysdale (78pp, 7.99,Cinnamon Press.)

Elaine Randell says of her poems in Faulty Mothering  that her material is based on her work as a social worker with families, and in particular with mothers who experienced problems in attachment with their children. The root of these problems are numerous: from mental health issues, addiction, poverty. domestic violence and so on. She says she is interested in the 'capacity of people to change and in the courage of children and young people to adapt and survive':

Poem 2 

After she was born
           they let me hold her
     her soft head had slipped
     from between my legs
            Such promise //
     I never saw her for 12 days
my milk dried up
      my heart stopped.
     It was never the same again.

     I lost what I had
         she's a stranger //

Poem 3 

My history as a child
     was torn
     wanting to please
     by tidy
     honest faithful
     and yet missing
     a link a passport to the adult
     I was muzzled     callipered

I'm transported back the Romantic Age and the Romantic Movement and to an English poet, artist and printmaker. I'm reminded of another poet who was concerned with orphans and the poor and for those lost souls on the edge of society.

William Blake wrote:

The Chimney Sweeper

     When my mother died I was very young,
     And my father sold me while yet my tongue
     Could scarcely cry ``'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!''
     So your chimneys I sweep, & in soot I sleep.

     There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,
     That curl'd like a lamb's back, was shav'd: so I said
     ``Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when you head's bare
     You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.''

     And so he was quiet, & that very night,
     As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight!
     That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
     Were all of them lock'd up in coffins of black.

     And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
     And he open'd the coffins & set them free;
     Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
     And wash in a river, and shine in the Sun.

     Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
     They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
     And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
     He'd have God for his father, & never want joy.

     And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
    And got with our bags & our brushes to work,
     Tho the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm,
     So if all do their duty they need not fear harm...

and there is more than a hint of Blake in these poems - there is reincarnation: but not of style or content - but of instinct. Ghosts of the past coming rushing at me. I'm seeing little Tom Darce - bald and scared being stuffed up a chimney, you might even find the likes in one of Britain's subterranean housing estates where this little mite was found:

Poem 17

     I looked out for her every minute
     She didn't come till very late
     but when she did it was funny.
     Mummy didn't get out of the
     car she spoke to her friends
     on the CB instead. Her hands
     were warm but her legs were bare
     were cold. She looked away
     when I said her name.

     There is a breaking down
     inside of her. There is a taste of
     rat. It is shorn up
     for good
     like a dead person.

Here I had to stop. Very rarely am I overwhelmed by a poem, but this choked me up. The line breaks are like heart breaks, this is one of the best poems and most disturbing poems I have ever read. For meaning and structure and for observation. This poem touched a nerve deep somewhere where I really felt uncomfortable and dislodged. A familiar rejection swept the back of my neck and held me suspended and mouthing at nothing. There is power in words and here in fourteen lines is a demonstration of what poetry can do and perhaps should do. For a moment I felt ashamed of what I was trying to do with my own words and where its motives lay - in the abstract and self interest. And the poet goes on:

Poem 9

You'd better go, I told him
     No use you hanging around here looking
     I watched him from the upstairs
     bedroom window. You woke up and
     asked for him
     daddy will
     tuck you up I said. I couldn't think
     what else to say.

Poverty and pain are still with us I was reminded. Children no longer have their heads shaved like little Tom Darce and stuffed up chimneys but rejection and abuse are to be found if we care to look. This is a poet with a heart, not for abstraction and self, but for the disempowered. Elaine reaches down and offers a hand. She offers us the gas gas gas of 'Modern Britain'; she gives us the corrupted lungs and rolling eyes of a horrific case load.

The poet said she wanted to 'explore' her subject. I thought right! I'll get her on the depth of her exploration. I was confident that I could show a weakness at this level - just to bring balance to my review. Then before my unsuspecting and prejudiced eyes Elaine took a scalpel and gently and beautifully drew a line in my chest. She then cut deeper and deeper till she reached a bleeding and damaged heart. With the organ exposed she magnified the image till all I could do was stare at the awful truth. The awful truth of rejection, - (perhaps my own) poverty, and lost childhood. Like witnessing a road accident I'm held in the focus of my observations. There is NO and I repeat NO cheap emotionalism here. This is a work of excellence. Subliminal at all levels -existential to the point of paint stripped and sanded white reality. These poems should have a health warning: Poetry Can Seriously Damage Your Heart.

And thanks to the man Tony Frazer who featured these poems and this poet - and for bringing this challenging subject to us. In the tradition of Blake, Owen and Ginsberg and many others, art is coming in at the deep end - the dirty end - the sore end: I'm in Ginsberg's supermarket, I'm in Owens trenches, I'm with the genius Blake consumed in his Swedenborg heaven and hell. What is happening at Shearsman is extraordinary, and words like 'annuls of English literature' are not over exaggerations. A conveyor belt of quality is coming through, borne out of sleepless night - I imagine, and personal cost. That here we have a once in a lifetime - perhaps two lifetimes - or perhaps to that moment when Eliot stuck his patient on his etherized table. That simply there is no other publisher on a par. This is not just art but art driven by that elusive vehicle VISION. Mr Frazer just can't put a foot or a comma wrong - not even in an email. I'm seeing Dr Johnson's essays on Pope or Shakespeare. I'm seeing Johnson's genius of delicate description and accuracy in his wonderfully observed dictionary for here we have the:

     Zest. n. f.

1. The peel of an orange fqueezed into wine.
2. A relifh; a tafte added.
To Zest. v. a. To heighten by additional relifh.


Sarah Broom is a native of Auckland and she is married and has three children. She has returned to New Zealand after spending many years in the UK studying and working in Leeds and Oxford. Sarah Broom's first collection of poetry is to jargon 'poetry of place':

     Keep Moving

     I lumber over the land, knees swollen
     and knotted like giant kumara roots/

     the dry earth knows all about me/
     I have my eye on / the mountains.


     The air is thunderous
     with the earth's pent-up noise
     The water has claimed us to our waists
     we lean into and against it
     angling for a grip.

Sarah is also concerned with close relationships:


     Your skin so thin the heart and brain beat through/

     your tongue skitters out, samples, retreats.

There also seems to be a concern with the physical extremes of illness:

Hospital Property

     Because I am alone in this cold room/ the/
     CT scanner is about to talk to me again/

Another recurring motif is motherhood:

The Third Daughter
     ... there is a strangeness about newborns
     a distance that can be groomed away
     bit by bit, or grasped and held
     to bear the unbearable...
     when they come in
     their faces are sewn up tight...

As a first collection these poems are as a first collection usually looks. There is nothing startling or exciting for me but then poetry is a matter of taste, and one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist.


Now to the Skiers by Jill Bialosky. I have to be honest this stuff  I found very hard to read. 138 pages of narrative masquerading as poetry. I'll give you an example from the aptly named 'Torture':

     Mice inhabited
     our walls
     we heard them

     scratching at night
     and the sound
     of their little feet
     running from one wall
     to the other /

     and from the ancient
     vacuum cleaner
     and dashed/

     across the floor.

And the torture continues:

     Three on a Match

Summer nights we played gin rummy
     in the backyard even when the mosquitoes
     drove us crazy/

     Our sister's hair had grown/
     The night she came home
     with suck bites covering her neck
     smelling of smoke and some boy...

And more torture:

     The Runaway
On a summer day full of promise
     we piled into my mother's car
     and drove my youngest sister
     to camp for the summer.

Now take this verse above. This is prose. There is no poetry - no nothing - it's dead  Jim and dead Jim as that mouse Jill battered to death earlier.


The Shadow House by Kathy Miles is a bit better than torture but not much - a bit of craft at last and detailed observation:

     The Bat

Even in death  he's smiling
     the mouth hoisted at the corners
     like a lifted skirt, his wings fastened
     and stiff, his eyes still flying
     into the wind. He has the ears
     of a Gremlin, long and full- sailed,
     tuned to the echoes of his world.

See it doesn't take much to make a poem: just a tiny bit of thought and most editors will spot it. But then Kathy overcooks the process by going on a bit. Its not necessary to make the poem fill the page - a bit of white is nice as a margin. First rule of poetry make one word do the work of four.

And there are some 'nice' poems here:

     The Gardener

     Out in the autumn air
     sun weathers his skin
     like crazy paving

     Today he's herding his flowers
     softly shepherding the plants
     careful not to bruise their fragile roots.

and from 
Walking on Mother's Day

     ... Narcissi curl their tango hearts
     anemones bed with bitter dandelions.
     a curd of memories thicken,
     like words thrown from a darkened sky.

Nice I'm afraid is about as nice and I can do....


Quaint is the word that comes to mind when reading Ann Drysdale's new collection. How does the thesaurus handle quaint: old-fashioned, old-world, picturesque, charming, pretty, attractive, appealing, modern. I could include - as regards these poem the words, uninspiring and unchallenging. Five collections so far for Ann and she's stilla quainting:

     First Footing

     Sun on the snow. We are first up, first out
     To lay our claim to the unprinted page    (
metaphor take note)
     I trudge great boots along the lower margin. (
extension of 1st met)
     Dog scribes his private joy across the slope  (2nd extension of met)
     In wild graffiti /                                     (extension 3 of metaphor),
     Writing as the ox ploughs, the ancient way  (4th extension of met)/
     Turning the footprints like Etruscan script   (5th exten of met)

I hear Tom Leonard and his attacks on the metaphor junkies: ' I hereby sentence you tae ten years hard labour doon the local library counting the fuckin metaphors' - or lines to that effect. It's like the poet has the A level English examination in her sights:

     Question 1: In Ann Drysdale's poem First Footing how is
     the idea of writing developed?

     Answer: In Ann Drydale's poem
First Footing the image of writing
     - a very uninspiring metaphor might I add is taken and ran with to
     the local English Department and bludgeoned to death. After it is
     dead it is then grinded to a find paste and injected up the rear end
     of every student in the school.

I'm beginning to think that metaphors should be banned as they have no impact on anyone anymore and are in fact cliches.

So me and Ann get off to a bad start as this is her first poem - and I'm for killing myself.

And onto poem number two:

Punk and Poetess

     .... for punk and poesie agree so pat
     you cannot well be this and not be that....
Robert Gould 1660-1708

     Alas, poor Robert; Orpheus you weren't
     But still you got your plucking fingers burnt.
     You badmouthed Sappho for her 'guilt and gout'
     And so the Sisters ripped your daylights out.
     Poor soul, you were, to borrow from the Bard,
     Hoist, willy-nilly, by your own petard -
     Not lifted high by pyrotechnic art
     But skittled by an ill-considered fart.
     Prometheus you weren't, but from afar
     You shed a little light on what we are.

Suddenly I'm impressed as any reference to Sappho would produce. Sappho was an ancient Greek poet who is recognized for her lyric poetry which has survived in fragments.  She was born on the island of Lesbos. Lady Mary Montague, a contemporary of Pope and friend of Samuel Johnson ( writer bows head at SJ's name) and other writers of the 18th Century, is called "Sappho" in Pope's "Epistle".  Montague was a woman of intellect and wit, and is best remembered for her letters.  An "epistle" is also another word for "letter".  In Pope's "Epistle," he uses all Greek names--goddesses and famous characters--to illustrate the way women should behave. Although Pope is frequently called a misogynist, he was an amazing critic of the age. The Epistles are meant to guide women away from the stereotypical foolishness for which women were known and criticized--vanity, stupidity, emotional instability and illogical thinking.  Pope's poem illustrates that women are complicated creatures--not consistent or predictable at all as males are. 

Bob Gould attacked Lady Mary and has been attacked ever since for his misogyny as is Pope. Ann is making a political point here - having a go at Bob Gould in her poem, and I am impressed although the poetry ain't on a par with Bob or the genius Pope but fair play I'm impressed.

Then she blows it:

     Glenys dances

     My friend Glenys is fond of dogs
     She quite likes cats and she's fine with frogs

     But the sight of a spider is enough to propel her
     From a standing start to a mad tarantella

     No fight, no flight, no choice of chances
     Show her a spider and Glenys dances

     With a tick-tock timestep the pace is set
     Then a kick and a flick and quick pirouette

     She's a thin bone bobbin wound round with wire
     Her face is frozen and her feet on fire

     With a tip-toe tapping to a tum-titty-tum
     Like a skilled paradiddle on a military drum

     Let fierce flamenco flattens the floor
     As she inches by flinches to the distant door

     Where she forces her resources to a grand jete
     And the last gasp chance of a clean getaway.

Paradiddle from the right hand drawer I take the revolver: paradiddle from the left hand drawer I take out the bullets: paradiddle you've seen the movie - paradiddle you know the rest.

          James McLaughlin 2010