John F. Deane, Martina Evans and Nell Regan

John F. Deane, Semibreve, Carcanet Press, ISBN: 978-1-84777-269-5

Martina Evans, Burnfort, Las Vegas, Anvil Press, ISBN: 978-0-85646-457-7

Nell Regan, One Still Thing, Enitharmon Press, ISBN:978-1-910392-04-1

 

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The poets reviewed here reflect a triangular set of Irish poetic impulses: lyricism, wit and the seannachaí flair for storytelling. The common ground is how their poetry explores the past, both personal and cultural/historical.

John F. Deane has long been a force in the Irish poetry landscape – founder of Poetry Ireland and this journal, a member of Aodána, winner of prestigious awards, a prolific essayist, fiction writer and much translated poet. He was a seminarian for a time, and immersion in the Latinate language has left its mark. In this musically cohesive collection, he dwells on the philosophical, spiritual, and religious issues inherent in grieving, feeling lost, or fearful: ‘What do you say to the dying, when already / they have waded out beyond hearing’ he writes in ‘Driftwood’, a poignant key poem that establishes the tone, grace and lyricism of a collection that is, essentially, an extended elegy for his brother.

 

The tone is reflective, though at times cut with an acerbic self-consciousness: ‘grief thickens with its selfishness’ (‘High Tide’); ‘I am standing, old and self-absorbed as Lear’ (‘Rain Falling in the Far West’). Idyllic childhood moments are recalled. In the poignantly titled, ‘The Living Room’, he incorporates both piano practice and the notion of outdoor escape, in a single image:

On the parlour floor, remember?

Just there, before the hearth, the river-otter pelt, sleek

golden fur through the underhair, silk-feel and death-grin,

how it brought into the room the stealth of water-dog,

 

high-jinks and romping, teeth sunk in trout-flesh,

secrecy of den and hold, the chill, the sliming…We

held to the basics, arpeggios, chords and scales;

you mastered them, remember? They have eluded me.

 

There is a nod to Heaney: ‘I will forge out words, plunge deep into language.’ (‘Museum of Country Life’) This comfort lifts him from melancholia, reminds him that he is alive. Like Hopkins in ‘Carrion Comfort’, Deane ‘can something, wish day come, not choose not to be’. Instead of staring too hard at the brutal certainty of death, the speaker celebrates the sustaining force of poetry: ‘the spirit holding // through the slow counterpoint and the unravelling’.

 

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Nell Regan’s One Still Thing, is a collection of emotional complexity. Her lyrics are all sound-dominant, even where they are dissonant, for example: ‘every / note, whoop and noise rattles’ (A Composer Walks the Catacombs). As with Deane’s collection, it’s a pleasure to hear the fluid music of vowels and consonants:

 

Horizon tricks the eye, a sea–

long gone – is sighted. A fossil

lightly shifts, remembers tide.

(Santa Fe)

 

This habit of looking both in the far distance and microscopically, of shifting viewpoint, is a characteristic. In ‘Printers’ Type’, a young apprentice imprints his girlfriend’s rear with the ink he cannot wash from his hands. ‘The oncologist too / will guess his job by what/ the x-ray will reveal. But that/is years away.’

 

Images echo, taking on a force that imprints (a recurring word) Regan’s poetic landscape– bridges, mountains, glass, pearls, shells, gold – and words like ‘impress’, ‘retort’ (I expected to read ‘report’ as the word follows ‘sniper’ and suggests a gun going off), which keep the collection grounded through leaps in time and geographically.

 

Conceit is one of the tools in Regan’s kitbag. In ‘Feeding the Birds’ she uses the story of St Kevin to teach mindfulness: ‘How to focus, solely, on the task to hand.’ The task is the thing, as Deane also knows. ‘Archaeology Class’ brings to mind Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’:

 

It’s all words, says one, as we reassemble

with language of cist and corbel, each part

of the dry wall back unto the cairn.

 

‘Passage’, a sequence of epistolary poems addressed by a famine emigrant to her sister, begins with a sea-passage. Like Evans, Regan is adept at portraying character. Like Deane, she favours patterning and repetition. From the speaker’s initial fearfulness at being abandoned: ‘under my feet/the ground gives way’, she quickly reveals her essential strength and pragmatism – ‘I am resolved’ – and even a rebelliousness. She goes on a date with a native American, though she knows this will close doors for her: ‘My next/ day off, we meet on top of the world.’(Later in the sequence, a child asks: ‘tell us again, Uncle, how you scalped that squaw.’) Some poems are written in the voice of her lost betrothed, and here the language becomes filled with tools, the practical clatter of industry, as in Adam White’s Accurate Measurements.

 

After being immersed in a previous century, it’s quite a jolt to return to the present, although travelling by plane for the return journey, as a symbol, is effective: ‘I can see why they say/ the psyche or spirit can’t travel at this speed / that it lags behind at a walking or sailing pace,’ (‘Jet Lag’).

 

While autobiographical material will inevitably emerge in poems, a seasoned poet becomes more interested in what we learn, what we know, what we’ve been told, and what we make of this knowledge. In this third collection, Nell Regan has captured a resonant moment in history and allowed the stories of unknown individuals to flow around her own, creating an emotional connection across time and space. The recurring bridge is a perfect metaphor for a beautifully distilled collection.

Anvil template 10mm

 

Martina Evans was hooked by the power of books from an early age. As the Graham Greene epigraph that opens Burnfort, Las Vegas tells us: ‘In childhood, all books are books of divination.’ This collection is a voyeur’s insight into the intimacy of a family home, feisty mother and docile, evasive father who escapes, for solace, to his cats. Not just personal stories, these distinctive poems weave in product names and era-defining cultural references.

The title poem reveals Evans’ mastery of the apparently effortless anecdote, digressions that snap back to reveal an orchestrated circuitry, like a kaleidoscope. The poem begins with an Elvis shrine, opens to the pub, the street, out to where the ‘mountainy men’ live, then back to the pub and the shrine. Not only that, but the small country pub has, in the interim, transformed into Las Vegas, by way of New York. The conversational tone also establishes the voice:

 

A few months ago

the novelty mug frightened us all

by spontaneously bursting

into Viva Las Vegas and I took that

as a sign, did what any

Catholic would do – put up a shrine.

 

Like Regan, Evans has an eye to America, the richest source of cultural influence for a child of the sixties – not just Elvis, but Frank O’Hara and films like ‘My Darling Clementine’, where the film stirs up a romantic association with her own father:

 

‘…Daddy suddenly angry

one night he had enough

and refused to be pacified with a drink

which he sent flying down

the Formica like Doc

with the back of his hand’

 

although her father is really:

 

‘more like Mack standing behind the bar

when Fonda asks, Have you ever been in love?

The small deferential bald head answers

subversively

No, I’ve been bartender all my life.’

 

The Formica table reappears a number of times. In the prose poem, ‘Daddy and Mae West’: ‘Come up and see me some time, you said, patting the yellow Formica with swollen crooked hands, the morning Mae died and Mammy said there was more to you than met the eye …’ Strangers sit there too: ‘A thin nicotine man/legs crossed showing grey socks/sits at the end of the yellow/Formica table’ (‘Save Us’). The table becomes a symbol for the layering of family history.

 

Evans, like Paul Durcan, encapsulates her characters by way of gesture, physical feature or expression: a guard’s ‘pan loaf-sized foot poised/on the pedal of his Honda 50’ (‘Known to the Guards’); a doctor’s breath, ‘so wine-rich’ (‘Substitute’). But there is a poignancy too: ‘ten children trapped / in a mushroom cloud of jealousy / over love spread too thin’ (‘Save Us’). Poignancy leaps clear of sentimentality, however: ‘People have this idea of ghosts but isn’t there a reason for everything? The howling? Sure, that was only the old dog, gone demented on her bed, turning round and round on top of the sheets and of course, they had to shoot him too, after’ (Ghost Story’).

 

Like her influences, Joyce and Flann O’Brien, she is so naturally close to the spoken word, the rhythms and assonance are almost subliminal. But they are there. In fact, so much is layered here, the richness is as palpable as Irish history altogether.

 

Afric McGlinchey

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March and After by Jon Mitchell

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Printed Matter Press

(all sales to Peace Boat operations in Tohoku)

In the wake of Japan’s most powerful earthquake since records began, Welsh poet Jon Mitchell batters out poems on his typewriter. Classified as unsuitable to be a volunteer in the devastated aftermath, this is all he can offer his adopted country. So here we have brief, scattershot images of the gargantuan, mind-bending tasks facing the survivors.

These simple, fleeting and affecting cameos also trace the moment-by-moment experiences and emotions of a helpless onlooker.

Considering the complexity of a disaster that includes not only a series of earthquakes but over 900 after-tremors, a tsunami that in minutes was carrying houses, buildings, boats and vehicles away, fires that blazed for kilometres, and radiation leakage from a nuclear power station, Mitchell’s observations are understated and wry, often self-mocking.

The opening poem, ‘twenty five tremors’ races along like a rapid heartbeat during the countdown to the next tremor:

I don’t know

what’s worse

the earthquakes themselves

or the early-warning bells

on the tv news

that have me

on my pavlov’s paws

in 5

and 4

and 3

and here we

go again

 

In another poem, a woman who has had chemotherapy for cancer and reacts with bravado:

fukushima can blow

sky high/for all I care

I’m radiation-proof

I read it online

 

Written with the momentum of an underground press, there is a sense of speed and urgency in the lack of regular punctuation, lowercase letters, short, terse lines that convey the immediacy of gut-reaction to a shocking event. We are in these moments with him:

a shoe wedged

in the door

to keep it

open when the roof

caves in the walls

still swaying

a tipped stack of books

my bathroom mirror cracked –

 

Mitchell scrambles for time, as hours, even minutes are suddenly precious. The thought of years hence is a luxurious fantasy.

 

In the poem titled: 2.46, in the throes of an earthquake, he chats up a ‘pretty suited office lady’ he has just witnessed pocketing a lipstick and chocolate:

on the jellyroll ground

– a pop-song long –

I sidled

step-footed apologized and introduced

myself

These are not only snapshots of a catastrophe, they are a personal narrative. The need for human contact is always present, of course, and paramount when there are possibly only moments to live. The woman’s observed ‘crime’ gives him his cheesy chat-up line (revealed in a later poem): ‘they shoot looters/ you know’. This is the beginning of a bitter-sweet disaster-zone relationship.

The details included in these poems are often the incidentals those not sharing the experience might not consider. For instance, three million commuters walk home after the earthquake, and the shops are sold out of cigarettes, sneakers, bicycles. Mitchell shops

for rubber bands, kitchen towels, sea salt, feeling like ‘hilda bloggs’s husband’ as the word    ‘irradiated’ appears on the news. This reference to an animated movie brings home the fact that, for Japan, the catastrophic future has arrived. A scattering of references such as this one give the poems a universality and in some cases, contemporary relevance.

The key appeal of this chapbook is its humanity – before I had got to page twelve, I had laughed four times, and had welled up too. After the initial pandemonium, the community rallies to counterbalance the terror and sense of helplessness.

In ‘a tweet from ultraman’, ‘things must be getting to me/I know/when a tweet from ultraman/makes me cry like a baby’. Mitchell is inspired to follow the tweeter in signing up as a rescue and salvage volunteer, but discovers to his dismay that he is ‘too old to shovel’, ‘too short to heave boxes and …can’t even drive.’ So, instead, he offers his services as a writer and records his observations of ‘the unslept man’, of ‘stable ground’, ‘a top-turned taxi’, of the girl who wraps her poodle’s ‘turd as carefully/as a slice of wedding cake’ amidst mud, rolled cars and smashed homes, while the soldiers watching ‘burst/into such stomach-creasing laughter/that it all begins/to hurt’.

Mitchell captures the quirky and the surreal in these collages, so that although we are observing tragedy, it is also a heart-warming testimony to the resilience of humanity.

There are those who flee, considered by those who remain to be rats leaving the sinking ship.

One of my favourite poems is the heartfelt ‘a week on’, where, surprised that Mitchell hasn’t ‘jumped ship too’, his Japanese neighbours of eight years invite him in for sake and snacks, and

‘- in the rattle of an aftershock

and a mouthful of ham –

I finally found out

the names of those next door

and

the nicknames they have for me

and perhaps what it means to be

home.’

In a spare, deceptively simple style reminiscent of Raymond Carver, this slim chapbook plays out the universal and poignant story of survival, endurance and redemption. Of human contact. And it will make you laugh. What more could you ask.

 

Afric McGlinchey

The Glutton’s Daughter by Sinéad Wilson

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Donut Press

Wit and clarity are two words I’d associate with Sinéad Wilson’s chapbook, The Glutton’s Daughter. Her opening poem, a sonnet, reflects the formality of religious rituals through the ‘litany of quiet names: altar, vestment/chancel, nave’, in a poem where the adolescent speaker hopes ‘for something bordering on proof from the young vicar/or the older kids, nibbling custard creams in the break’. But the closest she comes to faith is when she observes, over a period of weeks, ‘Tom’s un-squeezed whiteheads….inching down the gospel of his cheeks.’ For all the crisp word selection and tight lines, she maintains a lightness of tone that is refreshing and credible, while the objects of this poem give it a reassuring solidity. It is a well-chosen first poem, as the theme of communication, bodily references, and the ‘ink-streaked photostats’ link to the poems that follow.

‘Memories of Berwick Street and Dyfrig’ vividly describes recollections of a neighbourhood where children communicate using ‘yoghurt-pot-and-string telephones’ while ‘ladies in balconettes and underwireds/lean out on sills to smoke and try to catch your eye.’ Again, humour is evident, as Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is invoked: ‘I speculate the value you’d put to my pounds of flesh’. When the ‘you’ of the poem names one of the women Portia, she asks, ‘Portia as in Shakespeare?’ ‘No,’ comes the answer: ‘Portia, as in the car.’

The poems are beautifully arranged, moving from the balconette bras to a wonderfully wry ‘found’ prose poem about a bedroom view. Wilson has an eye for the quirky detail, and also for connections:

‘Once they saw Bardot marry Jourdan/twice in one afternoon,’ she says of two small boys who hold hands outside a church in Fonataine. This image of the hand-holding boys is echoed in the final line: ‘Fontaine left in the hands of two small boys’.

‘The Anatomy of the Poem’ describes how the speaker tries to penetrate her lover’s dream, after he utters a phrase in his sleep. She imagines he’s ‘lolling in an Oxford punt,/the lunch of drumsticks, tartlets, the chilled/white burgundy, the emptied hamper/a cushion for your lazy head…’ Her attention to detail is beautiful: ‘there’s a boater tipped to a squint/at the bridge of your nose, so you don’t see/the friend in cricket whites drive down his pole/to the river bed, then with a suck, kick off/and climb it, hand under hand, up out again.’ Only someone certain of her craft could get away with so many prepositions – down, off, under, up, out – in three lines.

Poems continue to talk to each other, even with the merest of connections. The next poem contains a couple, and wine, and further recollection: ‘down the descending scale of years,/you can now disclose how her voice/tightened your pubescent grip/and pulled you, groin-first, closer/to your partner’s stiff propriety.’

In another imaginative leap, Wilson adopts the voice of a cynical American forties crime detective in ‘Le Film Noir,’ ‘with just a wisecrack, a license, a loaded .38’ who sits in his office, nursing ‘a pint of bourbon on my desk/until someone spills their guts’. All the clichés of the film noir come together to recreate the black and white world of ‘the mad, the drunk, the grifters’ guns’.

In ‘Cape Farewell, Greenland,’ the speaker, feeling a pang for ‘whatever home means’ asks, ‘Why did we come?’

The symbolic value of objects continues to connect the poems thematically, as fabrics are named in Mourning Dress, and linens appear in Removing the Ring, where starched Egyptian cotton is folded, like origami, into a sailing boat ‘in the small of this last night’ so ‘he’s left without a doubt.’ This poem, like the origami folds described, is tightly restrained with rhymed line endings.

‘The Glutton’s Daughter’, a dramatic monologue, beautifully evokes the bitterness of a woman past her youth and beauty, who once modeled for Toulouse Lautrec and Degas, and who claims, ‘I could still turn to anything– landscapes, still-lives, sea views,’ but clearly hasn’t. In a strangely similar poem, the magical and quirky ‘Twenty to One’, an eccentric and we assume retired, dog takes himself back to the track, alone, where he joins the race, winning one more rosette. Maybe the woman in the Glutton’s Daughter will surprise us yet, and do something similar.

Taken together, the poems are wonderfully wry observations of the human condition: the quirky and often pointless things we do over the course of our lives TS Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock comes to mind, although these poems are much lighter and more hopeful. A villanelle, The Waltzer, describes how ‘we go in circles, but we’re going somewhere.’

Sinéad Wilson is a strong new contemporary voice and I look forward to more of her work.

 

 

Afric McGlinchey

 

 

Cloud Pibroch by James McGonigal (Mariscat Press)

CloudPibrocht-1

Poetry is a matter of personal taste, of course. This collection, McGonigal’s third, appeals to me because the images are particularly distinctive, although sometimes they are so striking as to be distracting. But where others might lapse into lyricism rather than substance, McGonigal’s magical and surprising imagery has an assuredness which does hold up under scrutiny. In ‘This was the Year of Waking Up’ he writes: ‘I felt rooted like a tree at first/but soon caught the trick of moving with the wind.’ This captures the essence of his style: poems of depth, carried lightly. There is an appreciation of the slightest moments: ‘Even a stray glance has its lifetime now/as we synchronise bodies like dancers/back to back.’ Ostensibly unconnected titles provoke the reader to seek further meaning. For example, a beautiful little poem opens with: ‘How could we have held clouds in both hands/and wrung them out like dishcloths? Our children/woke with snowflakes on their brows.’ This poem is titled ‘Release of Prisoners’. The reader senses a new consciousness in the poet: ‘voices just outside the tent/have sung us wide awake.’

The chapbook is dedicated to McGonigal’s father, whose presence is sensed obliquely in many poems: ‘his skull resonated with epochs of snow’ (Fathers and Sons); ‘The day the fever turned a Mondrian shade of blue – /I thought they were selling the air above me;’ ‘sorry earth that was crushed and torn’ (Time of Fever). While his father is not mentioned directly, there is a low-key mourning that hums just below these lines.

Language is a motif, appearing frequently in one form or another: in ‘water vowels’ (‘Anniversary’); in ‘a sign language of teeth and tongue…a cursive script of drool’ (At Mutehill Farm); in the ‘blarney’ of light: ‘uttering whole fields…articulating every thorn upon the bough’ (First Light); and in writing: ‘the wind puffed some words from its script’ (Hesitant start); ‘the wooden staircase spirals to a loft where texts/are still composed:/their bed a desk where love is written and re-reread.’ (Low Country and Western).

Sound (or the lack of it) also forms a subtle backdrop: ‘listening for the voice of water (The African Sun); ‘silence: its throat open as a cloud’ (the Elgin Marvels); ‘a shuttle clacked for hours in the loom of his throat’ (Fathers and Sons); ‘the bees would play their old-time tune/with wing beat, fore-feet, the nectar jazz.’ (First Light). ‘What noise did it make, how like a river’s breath,/how different from the rain’s persistent questioning?/No, I don’t think we heard.’ ‘Not a bird to be heard among riverbank leaves…./So whistle your own bird-thrapple tune to the air.’ (Soundings.)

Essentially, there is a lightness in this collection, with recurrent images of clouds, wind, moving water, leaves on trees – things of an ephemeral nature.

Throughout, clouds continue their persistent presence: ‘clouds rushed along the sky’s corridor’; (Last Thing) ‘a gambol of clouds re-passing trees and so forth’(Season of Frost); ‘Evening of the end of clouds’ (Appearances) ‘clouds swinging bucketfuls of rain’, (Sleepwalking); ‘clouds across the moon/were fingers tapping a drum.’ (The Prize). They are the epitome of the transitory, yet an endless presence in the landscape of the poet’s life. A strong undercurrent of nature is felt, not only clouds and wind but rivers and trees, fish and deer, frogs and bees too, and it is these things which enable the poet to keep his bearings, to remain rooted.                                                                                             Some poems are a kind of anthem for émigrés: ‘I was watching pinball moves of ants across porch timbers/and thinking how in all their syncopated searchings out and/overturnings they left scent trails for the brothers to follow (New World). There is also a sense that all of us are exiles, in time if not in space: ‘In the dust were prints of every soul who’d walked/between grassy banks, driving a herd of hurts/down to the sea.’ (Migrant).

While there are intimations of something altogether darker (‘Can I return to the main point of this illness,/ the immediate wound, after some attempts/to stop its tongue of blood?’ (Release of Prisoners) ) on the whole, the direction of McGonigal’s latest collection is contrary to today’s cult of the sensationalising of dramatic subjects. It is in his nuances, underneath the tranquillity of his voice, that the more long-term impact is felt: ‘starlight must have blessed the skin/and broken it’; (Release of Prisoners); ‘Soon I wore the part like horse skin/visible only when bleeding or pestered by flies.’ (Understudy).

These poems pay attention – not only to the nuances of language, but of life. McGonigal focuses on the beauty of strangeness with his surreal and delicate images. His is a world of the natural, with small human touches added, while the subtle charge of occasional stings adds a piquancy to an otherwise pastoral collection.

 

Afric McGlinchey

 

 

 

Fleeting Magazine

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

‘We like daring, lucid, erudite, amusing and infectious writing,’ writes the editor of the online fleeting magazine, Matt Shoard, a Kent University creative writing lecturer. There’s also an endorsement by one critic: ‘Some of the most stylish and provocative new writing online’, so I delve further.

The first thing to strike me is the series of arresting and startlingly beautiful photographs which are mostly by staff photographer Miss Aniela. These are attached to certain pieces of writing, creating a strange and interesting conversation between the two. I especially liked the one accompanying ‘Afternoon’ (a black and white image of a young guy almost up to his chest in a lake) and the photo going with ‘The Distance Between These Things’ – a thought-provoking image, which shows two drenched figures, heads hanging back, maybe from a raised trampoline. All sorts of moods are possible.

The About page also introduces the rest of the fleeting staff: poetry editor Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, who has edited three other journals and is a published poet; David Whelan, a journalist who has written for the Guardian, Times, Sunday Times and Independent, who does the author interviews; David Miller, who won Literary Agent of the year in 2008, is a consultant; Dan Hales, editorial assistant, is an English and Creative Writing student at the University of Kent.

On the clean, clear Submissions page, we are told that fleeting has an acceptance rate of less than 1% – now there’s a challenge! But they helpfully add that you’ll hear from them within a few days, so no agonized wait. There’s also ‘a taste of what works’ and an invitation to ‘look around’ which takes the reader to poems and short fiction that has not only been published in the magazine but has also won or been shortlisted for ‘The best short writing in the world’ award, run by fleeting magazine. You can read the winners and shortlisted work on the Prizes page.

There’s also editorial advice offered – visit The Clinic, and for a startlingly reasonable fee of £2 you can have your poem critiqued. The feedback is impressive, with a list of testimonials, one of which reads: ‘This was the most detailed and exciting feedback I have ever received ‘.

Four pieces of fiction which I found compelling were ‘The Financial Lives of the Poets’ by Jess Walter, ‘The Confusion’ by Ken Poyner, ‘The Poppy Festival’ by Chris McCormick, and ‘Forever Breathes the Lonely Word’, by Ashley Stokes, a previous Bridport winner. (Matt Shoard obviously likes lists, like me, because as well as this one, there are a number of other ‘list’ pieces of writing, including ‘Footnotes in Search of a Story’ by Adrian Slatcher, ‘Tuesday 26 July 00.51-1.22am’ by JDA Winslow; and ‘I $ you’ by Chelsea Martin).

The Poetry page is equally diverse and consistently surprising and interesting. One particularly striking poem is ‘Shanghai’, by David A.F. Gui. The titles of some of the other poems should give you an idea of what to expect: ‘The Lepidopterist’ (Robert Masterson); ‘Poetry Terrorist Alliance (PTA) Video’ (Brett Bevell); ‘While Facing the Urinal’ (Marc Vincenz); ‘Grey Men’ (Mario Petrucci); ‘Mg – Magnesium 12’ (Marj Hahne); and ‘Negotiation’ (Tammy Ho Lai-Ming).

The Prizes page features The Best Short Writing in the World prizes for 2010 and 2011 (a title coined by the magazine, and a competition judged by them.) First, second and third prizes are personalised subscriptions to Stack Magazines. It’s an added incentive to submit work, knowing that it may be shortlisted for such a cockily titled competition! ‘In my opinion, there couldn’t be a higher accolade’, writes one fan.

All in all, the three-year old fleeting is an exciting addition to the online journals available. It’s definitely one to watch.

Gill Andrews – The Thief

Gill Andrews delivers a lightness of touch in her chapbook, The Thief, which opens with a poem called ‘The man who paints the bridge’ (a title that reminds me of the simplicity of Wislawa Szymborska ‘People on a bridge’.)  The first two stanzas ring with clarity: ‘His left hand holds a can/or dark red oxide paint. His right hand//lowers and lifts the cradle,/ slides it along to the next diagonal.’ But as the poem progresses, a more surreal note slips in: ‘People on Battery Road/set their clocks by him. They measure his beard//to see how long they’ve slept.’ The man who paints the bridge understands his craft intimately, and Andrews captures his work with vivid visual detail: ‘how it barnacles unevenly/how its colour degrades. And the claws/within salt, the sugar in rain.’ The poem becomes more lyrical, meditative, rising to a beautiful climax: ‘He knows/why teals and swans migrate/and the happiness of steel at the hugeness of trains.’

This is an attentive poet, then, and a reflective one. Her next poem, ‘Skein’, is conversational in tone, and starts with a surprising line: ‘What we make is finer than on the Earth.’ Immediately there is intrigue: where are we? ‘Folk can’t fathom us/living up here but there’s not much weaving work/back home nowadays’. One imagines it’s out in space somewhere: ‘it’s all to do/with gravity, and the starlight not being filtered/ by any atmosphere……’

There is a light dusting of humour in many of her poems; wry portrayals of self-satisfaction (‘Is’) or the way the public is so readily judgmental (‘The candidate’).  In both these poems, repetition is used to very good effect: ‘You should get one of these….You should have one of these…You should plant some of these…’

There is also the incongruous charm of imagining the speaker in ‘Lawyer’, attaining his dream ‘when all this is over’: ‘I want to lie awake at night/listening to little oinks and snorings,/ eleven siblings in a row alongside their mother’s teats’.

Occasionally, I felt a poem might have been more effective if it had ended earlier, as with the appealingly titled ‘On not being able to phone you because I haven’t got your number’. This poem is two and a half pages long. One would have sufficed, with a potentially powerful final image: ‘mistakes a baggie of heroin for a baggie/of cocaine/and overdoses’.

In her personal poems, such as ‘Greater love’, Andrews makes effective use of dialogue and, again, repetition. The surprise of this poem is on the facing page, where there appears to be a separate, untitled poem, as it begins half way down the page and is justified right. But the linking word ‘remote control’ connects the two – and also gains symbolic meaning in the reading of this second, very poignant section.  Another personal poem ‘Pleasure beach’ again uses dialogue to create a sense of suspense and rising panic: ‘No you didn’t. You didn’t ask me. I never heard you ask me./ I was up the arcade I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.’

Other poems in this chapbook are responses to artworks by Picasso and others, sassy with attitude. One, entitled Caryatids, describes sculpted female figures with ‘marble hips, magnificent/hairdos’, adding ‘There’s nothing//chaste about their robes.’ Andrews uses eclectic sources for her subject matter: for instance, one poem is inspired by a nineteenth century diary entry, while another describes a ‘Rickets Display’ in a museum. Before turning to writing, Andrews was a lawyer. A couple of poems, ‘Workstations’ for example, draw on her experience of this world, where ‘trying not to cry always takes so long.’

The title poem, ‘The Thief’, is an exhilarating and surreal play on words, where each stanza begins with a word from the previous one. ‘Oxygen, you’re the red dress of a thousand sequins/and your hemline has purple round the outside.// Red dress, you’re the bad parent, driving in the small night/to unfamiliar streets and leaving me there without any money.’

Sometimes this chapbook feels a little too mild, or playful for its own sake – but the competence is undeniable and there’s a charm about Andrews’ imaginative world that allows for these small flaws. Throughout ‘Thief’, Andrews shows a light but sure touch, and the colloquial ease with which she handles her subjects ensures that her work is accessible rather than over-poetic. Yet the counter-point to this lightness is what makes her work striking and memorable: the surprise, the turn, where something altogether unexpected happens. Her work is both the ‘singing of sky and scrapings of white cloud.’

Chris McCabe – Shad Thames, Broken Wharf

Reviewed in Sabotage,  May 21, 2011

 

Shad Thames, Broken Wharf is a commissioned play, or script for a short film, written by Chris McCabe. Each book is presented in a box, with a genuine relic salvaged from the river. Nice touch.

Image from http://chris-mccabe.blogspot.com/

The cast: Echo, a middle-aged woman from the locality, Blaise, a Northerner, the Landlord, a Londoner with ‘the knowledge’ and the Chorus, representing ‘The Restructure.’ Immediately there are resonances of Greek mythology (Echo was the name of a nymph who fell in love with Narcissus), Beckett, Joyce, Shakespeare, even Orwell’s 1984 (The Restructure). The language is poetic, sardonic, dark, comic: ‘Consider the Gherkin: a suppository for the arse they made of things.’

The Prologue opens with the Landlord locating the setting: ‘somewhere between a warehouse & a backstreet, between the Thames & the City.’ Then he goes on to describe how he became a Landlord, defining his role as something ‘between a bookmaker & a doorman, an undertaker & a prophet, a pharmacist & a cab driver…’ He continues, philosophically, so that in the end, the Landlord’s role encompasses every occupation from an historian to a Griffin, minute-taker, anarchist, semaphorist and poet. And more. This is a play full of lists.

The ‘white strobe from the tower’, which reflects across the river, across each glass he pours, symbolizes the ‘forever-time position of making the moment happen on canned-repeat – each time new, each time the same…’ Here is where I am reminded of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where the conversation endlessly repeats, where nothing happens, where there is always a sense of anticipation. The language is wonderfully poetic and rhythmic, with unexpected images: ‘the tides percolating sea-saliva, clawing the bladderwrack beach ….binbags hunched as done-in men….’. There are also striking and incongruous juxtapositions of location: ‘…somewhere between Deadman’s Dock & a shop called Joy.’ McCabe makes effective use of rhythm, assonance, alliteration, lists and repetition to ensure his audience’s rapt attention.

The opening dramatic monologue, which locates the story ‘somewhere between the dead fish & fresh bread, the bunker & the turret, between the commerce and the cormorant, the greed & the grebe….somewhere between tonight’s first shout & what she said at Shad Thames’ – sets up an expectation – of poetic language, of a conflict, and creates a suspense: what did she say? The lack of a full stop in the final sentence leaves everything open-ended.

In the opening scene, the two characters, Echo and Blaise, appear to be talking to themselves. At any rate, their comments seem unconnected to each other. We start to get a sense of the contemporary: ‘the pulse of the pyramid’; ‘this husk of a remote control, battery-side up, in the sand’. Echo describes the excavations and rebuilding: ‘They dug the bunker with tractors, diggers, cranes – it was like watching a nest of insects.’

She is bemused by all the activity, not able to concentrate on it ‘ – never knowing when he’d be back’

It is in fragmented suggestions like this that we get glimpses of her personal life.

Blaise lists items he finds in the river. Echo (whose dialogue is always rich with imagery) describes a book she found when the tide went out: ‘Have you ever seen a book thrown back by the river? It was open face-down like a drowned bird. I thought there might be a clue there. I picked it up – it was called Ulysses’

Blaise tells Echo (now they are beginning to have the semblance of a conversation together) about a friend of his, a bin-man, whose mate had a problem with ulcers. He found a copy of Ulysses in the bin, and read it because he thought it might help: ‘you know, being called ‘Ulcers’.

Echo talks in generalities. She mentions seeing seven species of birds. Blaise likes specifics: ‘what kind of birds?’ She lists them: ‘sparrows, starlings, tits, gulls, pigeons, blackbirds, crows’.

The conversation, and the journey she describes, goes round in circles, ‘or cyles’, as they buy round after round. The wisdoms they sprout are very Beckettian: ‘Never trust a man with a square watch’; ‘It’s men with small wrists who dig deepest in their pockets.’

As Blaise goes out for a ‘piss’, the voice of The Restructure is heard, introducing a more surreal note:

‘When the weather changes THE

RESTRUCTURE replaces the crunch of notes with shreds of gulls,

conceals phonebooks of evacuees under fresh snow

so the contacts are mulched under boot-treads –‘

Although The Restructure gives a description of sorts, it is atmosphere rather than logic, which is conveyed:

‘…THE RESTRUCTURE uses a spirit level

of grey tube to level out the overspill of marshes,

shunts under the river to make North and South a tabula rasa,

a straight run of twenty-five minutes without delays

(time enough to think but not act on how much you owe)’

(For me, a ‘spirit level’ will always bring Heaney to mind, and so, another echo…)

In the layers between these fragmented observations of the Landlord, the Restructure and the disjoined dialogue between Echo and Blaise, we begin to get a sense of cohesiveness: the objects unearthed from the riverbed symbolizing the history of Shad Thames, the evolution of its story. Echoes and repetitions continue the cycles and circles, symbolizing life: eggs, birds, snowflakes. Myth and legend surface in random fragments uttered: ‘Did I ever say that if the stone birds fly from the Liver Building the whole city crumbles back to earth?’

The conversation follows no specific topic, abruptly changing constantly, yet loops occur. The dialogue – such as it is – is broken by silences, which appear to be comfortable ones, or someone – this time, Echo – going for ‘a piss.’

The voice of The Restructure is heard again, with more riddles, surreal images and bizarre rules for a strange world:

‘THE RESTRUCTURE….positions fortune cookies

along the cobbles of wharves so subliminal messages

gum the soles of shoes; creates brutalist altars in converted

churches so new Gods can be seen from many perspectives,

ensures all citizens are buried with a coxcomb, a chicken and a

bell.’

Oh, McCabe is having fun! This is a text that also continues to subvert expectations. Magic occurs: ‘transforming fish to dancing coins’. Sometimes, spells are more like curses (as with the witches in Shakespeare’s MacBeth): ‘….THE RESTRUCTURE mixes mercury

with syphilis to ensure mental collapse follows erectile dysfunction’.

There is gambling, with ‘the splenetic lighthouses of fruit machines’. Sometimes there’s the sense of a reversal of time to a Dickensian world: ‘THE RESTRUCTURE has already placed penny bets on fortunes in the smouldering quays of Galley, Dice and Smart’. And let’s not forget the ghosts in the churchyard of St Mary’s: it was like a canteen, a canteen for ghosts’. McCabe spins us, not only through time warps, but also through the literary worlds of the great classicists – back to Beckett again:

Blaise: ‘It’s a parallax!

Echo: ‘It’s a trick of perspective!’

Blaise: ‘It’s a dupe for terrorists!’

Echo: ‘It’s a maze for drunkenness!’

And Shad Thames, Broken Wharf, is, indeed, all these things. Amidst the piss, the alcohol, the river, flows the drunken drivel of two characters reflecting on transient moments in their lives, the history of this corner of the world. I even detect a hint of Paul Muldoon in Blaise’s sound epiphany of: ‘Black dock of Salthouse, black dock of Blitz; black dock of Brunswick, black dock of silt; black dock of brandy…. ‘etc. And The Restructure adds and deletes contacts – like Facebook or other social sites… this is an impressionist, fragmentary take on the dregs left behind by civilization, past and present, in all its mess and glory. Rather ambitious for a slim play. McCabe pulls it off though. Loved this.