I remember reading Phil Vernon’s micro-collection, entitled This Quieter Shore, back in 2018 and thinking what a talented writer he is. Therefore, I looked forward to delving into Poetry after Auschwitz (SPM Publications, 2020) when it arrived and wow, what a collection it is!
Vernon’s principal concern in Poetry after Auschwitz is the way history affects us. He gives a voice to historical figures (such as Judas, Stalin’s daughter, and a liberator of Belsen) to articulate the transformative effect of past events upon the present: he portrays their influence as a constant presence in our lives. In El Tres de Mayo he writes: ‘What’s past is present: faded cryptogram of sound – no matter we try to prise/ a meaning out of or ignore it – fills/ our ears with its abiding , quiet refrain.’ How the past affects the present is complex: the effects differ but are always significant…
I remember back in the eighties reading Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, his profoundly moving collection of poems about the passing of his wife that were at times almost too painful to read. The same can be said of Peter A’s Art of Insomnia (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2021), a chapbook of twenty-two direct, intimate, almost conversational poems through which he explores the loss of his partner.
Like Dunn’s Elegies, whilst Peter A’s poems are about grief, they are also about love. They honour a relationship which was cut tragically short. Take for example, his Found in France. We see the French rural retreat through the eyes of his wife. There is true affection and warmth in his amusing description of what she would not have liked. This is an affection derived from the intimate knowledge that comes through sharing a life with another and from an uncritical acceptance of what…
Today I have to depart from my general plan to post weekly. For various reasons, I feel compelled to include an extra short one but make no apology for that. At the end of a week which included International Women’s Day, I think Mother’s Day is as good a day as any to do this.
In the last few days the murder of a young woman at the hands of a predatory male has shocked me, but not surprised me. We are living in a world in which incels, players and other entitled males are exercising unequal power damaging society in a way similar to the behaviour associated with white superiority. Both must be corrected but today the treatment of females must be the focus.
It is a matter of shame that women are having to hold vigils in memory of Sarah Everard (and others previously affected), and a scandal that they are being told they have to take additional steps to keep themselves safe, precautions which men do not have to take. Men are to blame for this.
Men have an obligation to address their own behaviour so that women do not walk in fear. Women I know, including my young sister, are afraid to walk alone through countryside or woodland, even in the daytime, and city parkland at night.
I, and all other men, have to accept that apart from possessing greater physical strength, they have been nurtured by a society which convinces men they are entitled to more – whether that be higher salaries or freedom of movement. There is also the trite ‘boys will be boys’ label which starts in childhood and tends to carry on into adulthood. In addition to those features, there is constant male peer pressure fuelling the continuance of toxic masculinity.
In the early hours of this morning – all of these things on my mind – I scribbled this first draft of a short poem:-
That is all
I am a man
Not that man
Of whom I am
I truly am
- That is all
Not about love
Nor about lust
Not about any
- That is all
I am a man
Not that man
Of whom I am
I truly am
- That is all
That Feverfew, the sixth and latest poetry collection from Anna Saunders, is laced with quality – at times luxury – is easily evidenced. What is more difficult to explain, though ironically it may be inherent in its stylish packaging, is the exquisite economy and value to be found in this publication.
In large part this may be attributable to the presence of forty one poems within a physical book-space of proportions which seem incapable of holding such an amount of treasure. Yet there is nothing cramped or cheap about its presentation. I guess the publisher Indigo Dreams must be due credit for the practical side of this, the design and typesetting, as indeed must the poet for composing poems which fit so well to the page.
Of greater importance, however, is the discovery that this collection has a literary and sensory quality which (like the divine accused characterised in one of the collected poems, The Prosecution Builds up a Case Against Jupiter) takes various forms. Some clues may be found in the cold and hot of the striking cover design; the proof is found in the assured crafting of words found within the covers.
Mythical references inhabit a number of the poems. Some of the named characters and creatures from Greek and Roman mythology will be familiar to non-scholarly readers, some not. Where I was unsure about the myths associated with a featured character I found it intriguing to read the poem first of all without research and enjoy it for its sounds and feel and discernible purpose; enjoy it purely as a poem. The nature of the myth would sometimes be revealed in a general way by this exercise, subsequent googling being largely confirmatory. In other cases, discovering the mythological root was an essential key.
In all those referring to myth the poet’s skill and imagination re-works the ancient to make it relevant to the modern reader, and to the contemporary message the poem is meant to convey.
As well as those which reference mythology there are works here which use the characteristics of wild creatures to tell the stories of humans, those which feature the nakedness of humans themselves, and those which feature spirits who have thrown off the flesh which formerly clothed them.
It is important to point out that, while this is a collection with serious intent making full use of grown-up literary techniques and devices, it possesses humanity, occasionally shows vulnerability and employs humour too (often in the guise of satire and/or the entertaining titles of certain poems).
Whether your mood calls out for reflections of love, lust, loss or consideration of abuse of power and animalistic instincts, there is something here for you. I have found the collection pleasing, rewarding, surprising and affecting to read and re-read.
Given the space I permit myself for Blog reviews there is not room to give examples of the many poems in Feverfew that touch or tickle my intellect, anima or shadow. So, as a discipline I have decided to look briefly at just four, hopefully providing a soupçon of the flavours of the collection.
What I Learnt from the Owl, the first poem in Feverfew, has something of Emily Dickinson in it. Its unflinching true depiction of an owl as bird of prey sets the reader up for some of the cold reality-checking which will emerge in subsequent poems and is also the perfect appetiser for the collection’s second poem – the first one I wish to discuss here – Time after Time the Same Bird is Born from the Flame.
In this piece, the phoenix of Greek mythology is transformed for the modern world. No longer is it the positive motif, eagerly adopted over time to represent renewal and in due course Christian resurrection. Anna Saunders’ phoenix is viewed as an unwelcome regeneration. The opening lines tell us that:-
Here it comes, … /a feathered doppelgänger of the last,/ an identical gold-eyed genesis/scattering a surplus of silver plate from his claws.
He is introduced as a privileged creature, a royal bird which feasts on incense, whereas we pick at seeds and stringy meat.
The ‘we’, presumably the ordinary folk, wonder How did he earn the spokes of sun that ascend from his head…?
We ache for change, yet each creature that rules the court/is a rooster’s brother with jaundiced eyes.
Not even death will bring an end to this.
It quickly becomes clear that this poem, which on its surface references the exotic re-generating bird of myth, in its gut speaks of inequality and the apparent impossibility of bringing about necessary change in the cycle, the system.
How wrong we are to think that fire/can cauterise corruption, it continues. That could hardly be more plainly expressed, especially when followed by the line which gives the poem its title, Time after time the same bird is born from the flame.
A number of Ms Saunders’ poems deal with love and relationships, some tinged with eroticism, others with various difficult aspects and issues; each one is worth the reading and imbibing. For my second arbitrary choice I have selected one of the less obvious depictions of a controlling relationship, I come back as a Horse.
Ostensibly, it features a horse (probably a gentle mare) considering how it is treated by its human master and begins with what appears to be a sad acceptance that true freedom is no longer an option: –
My owner leads me in from the cold. /His heating makes my flanks steam, my breath plume and cloud. He shouts/as my skittering hooves crescent mark his shiny floor.
Next, we discover the extent of the horse’s value to the owner: –
He has pictures of the races all over his wall/strained mares taking jumps/ or being brushed down savagely/until their rumps blaze like precious stones. The mares, it seems, are there to win trophies, or be trophies, and the next stanza tells us of further restrictions of liberty –
We have to wear our harnesses all night./It is compulsory and our necks burn.
The narrator horse speaks disparagingly of humans choosing inappropriate names. I am not mine, she says unhappy with her naming, before going on to describe in a similarly sanguine voice the more shocking truth of what happens to horses who do not match expectations: –
A young one never came back. If your legs buckle,/if your back is too weak, there’s a bullet for you.
The implication of controlling threat (and a point where a familiar association may be drawn with hair-pulling abuse and assault) continues in the next two lines –
I love my mane, even when he winds it round his hand/to make a boxing glove.
Finally, following a statement of preference for the freedom of the fresh air, the poem concludes with the subtle but poignant –
Once, a child passed me, said I had kind eyes,/felt pity for me.
The third poem I wish to feature, Floundering, is one of exceptional tenderness, and admirable skill.
In it a poet speaks to her mother, who has recognised the reality that poets do not make money from their art and is offering her poet-daughter money from her purse. But there are other things going on and it is the skill of linking all of these threads and carrying all themes through to the end in a very naturalistic way which shows Ms Saunders’ deftness here.
To explain here the detail of how this is manifest, all its conceits and devices, would in my opinion spoil the pleasure of those I hope will go on to read it hereafter. However, as I must give you something, I’ll give you these two connecting elements as a tease and assure that there is much more taking place in the poet’s mind and in the physical environment surrounding mother and daughter:-
It reminds me of the tulips dad planted/so we’d have colour after he had gone.
This casual observation prompted by the shape of a heron’s head from behind appears early in the poem and is one of the themes echoed in the velvet glove punch of the final stanza, which runs as follows:-
Mum, you have your purse out again,/and that worried frown that dad used to have/when he was looking at the tulip bulbs,/wondering if they would come out in time.
The fourth and final poem I draw to your attention is one which is simultaneous easy and very difficult – So much Blood around my Name. I say easy because it is written in terms which are easy to understand even on first reading, not requiring much interpretation. The subject matter, however – as in many of the collection’s poems – is raw, visceral, uncomfortable, confessional.
There is much blood and guts within Feverfew but what we have here is quite different. This is not the remote blood and guts of mythology or that associated with the regular behaviour of the animal kingdom.
In this poem the first mentions of blood arise in a specific recollection, written in past tense, of a blood commitment symbolised by a fresh tattoo of the narrator’s name on her former lover’s arm (How deeply I’d been etched into your skin,/you bloomed blood.), a commitment which ended (…we needled each other,/until I left). The second reference to blood is in the present tense and comes with consideration of implied guilt which some would wish to place beside her name. It also echoes skilfully the blood which formed around her name at the time of the fresh tattoo :-
‘Years later I hear about your death.
He couldn’t go on without you. I am told.
I imagine your pale limbs under the earth. Those four letters extinguished by the dark.
Can love ever be perfect? Can poetry about love be perfect? Can two people living together for a long time be perfect?
In my humble view, those are time-wasting questions because answers to them are virtually impossible.
It would be more useful I suggest to dip into the approach adopted by Darren J Beaney in his debut pamphlet for Hedgehog Poetry Press, HONEY DEW; in a series of twenty one poems he sets out, in a sometimes self-deprecating way, to find ways (some of them very original) to encapsulate in words the various stages of a continuing love relationship without which he feels his life had been, and would be, pointless. That realisation is hinted at elsewhere but disclosed in plain sight in the eighth poem in the book, 32 to the power of 22.
This debut is infused with sincerity as much as it is with originality and vivid Punk-style colour. It is also very relatable.
The opening poem, though it carries the title LET YOUR HEART DANCE, moves with a deliberate lack of steady rhythm, chucks in an occasional internal rhyme – but don’t expect that to happen in a predictable fashion – and employing these devices captures the awkwardness of unexpected love-at-first-sight during a first dance. The designed chaos only reaches an end in the poem’s sublime conclusion:-
As we gasped/ without resting and kissed without breathing and fell without landing.
This is followed by the title poem HONEY DEW, a short but vivid expression of the sweetness of new love :-
A smile/ … that tempted with low hanging kisses/ ripe and ecstatic
The reason for the poem’s brevity appears to be summed up in the final two words – ‘tongue tied’.
The theme of combined shyness and disbelief at the suddenness of what is happening reappears in the reference to his belly hosting ‘a soulful band of butterflies‘ in the third poem, PLAYING BANJO ON BRIGHTON BEACH.
By poem five, LETS START SOMETHING WE WON’T WANT TO FINISH, there’s an admirable statement of ambition reflected in text which combines unconventional with conventional, even old-fashioned, and a little tongue-in-cheek without destroying the sincerity of its intention. For example, Beaney writes: –
Let’s learn to dance – foxtrot, tango/… I’ll …collect/ your falling blushes. When I have them all we will paint/our town, leaving our mark, creating a legend/ bigger than Terry & June.
Let’s take tea at the Ritz. I’ll get dressed up/to the nines with odd socks and no shoes…../You can slurp from your saucer/while I protect you from those uptight stares.
Where Shakespeare would write ‘If music be the food of love…’, Beaney writes and concludes the poem ‘We’ll wake each morning to … an eternal love powered by the energy of three chord guitar riffs’.
In a sometimes uptight world it is good to remember that romance can be fun and rebellious, and Darren Beaney’s writing conveys that in abundance in some of his work.
He is also capable of expressing unabashed praise of continuing love in more lyrical terms while maintaining his personal style, as in YOU AND ME, US TWO:-
Our love is driven by neat engines of persistence/shuddering to the twitch of our touch, firing the luscious/laughter and locomotion of a lifespan together.
I’d happily quote every stanza of this poem in full but will confine myself to the following further few lines as a taster:-
…Our relationship simple/as a new Puritan. Sustained without effort, lazy,/ as wonderfulas bunches of late May daffodils.
Our passion is as exciting as Caxton’s/very first page, printed with a love song for Cupid. Each day/is Valentine’s Day stuffed into our Christmas stocking.
As I now feel I’m in danger of giving too much of the book away for free, I shall curtail my notes and end this review with a brief reference to the last poem in the pamphlet THE MISSING BIT which, amongst other things, touches on the point I made at the start of the review. (A similar point is made by Beaney in the short poem THIS IS A LOVE SONG which appears a little earlier in the pamphlet.) In THE MISSING BIT, he is again concerned that he cannot sufficiently express all elements of the love he feels in order to be convincing. He writes,
And that is the bit/that is missing
And I want our love to mean/as much as Dr King’s dream/with as much passion/as a catalogue of first kisses
because we are so much more/ than love bites and candlelight
If you are looking for an original but relatable, generally schmaltz-free, story of a love relationship in 21 poems, HONEY DEW is available in various formats from Hedgehog Poetry Press http://hedgehog press.co.uk or from Darren’s own site http://djbeaney.wordpress.com . Prices direct from Darren are: UK £7.00 (inc. postage), Overseas £11.00 (inc. postage) and e-book £3.00.
Now that I have reached the end of this jumping-around-irrationally-at-the-wrong-time-of-year-Advent-calendar-of-blogposts, the question can fairly be asked.
Apart from the specific pre-Christmas season sense, what does advent mean?
The answers may be expressed in a range of definitions: a coming into place or view or meaning; arrival (e.g. of an important event). It is derived from the Latin adventus which means coming. And what is coming tomorrow?
Today is the eve of St Valentine’s Day. I’ll mention before continuing a curious factoid of which you may not be aware. Glasgow, my nearest city, is as much the City of Love as Paris; some would argue Glasgow’s credentials are even stronger.
Inside the Church of Blessed John Duns Scotus located in Glasgow’s Gorbals there is a small wooden casket containing the bones of Saint Valentine’s forearm. Apparently some folk have take their intendeds there to propose beside the relics and statue of St Valentine.
So this is the Eve, the eve of the celebration of the most important emotion or gift that any of us possess. Love covers a wide spectrum and comes in many forms but in most people’s minds St Valentine’s Day is about romantic love, so I’ll try to keep this piece fairly focussed within that meaning.
That said, it is a strange one this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. As someone whose youthful romanticism was not impeded by a virus , I feel sorry for the young people caught up in this unnatural situation. I wrote a very short poem on this topic several months ago, which found its way onto the Pendemic Irish online website.
CV-19: sexual distancing
O what a time to be alive!
To appreciate platonic
Resist relations intimate
By order of the government
Assisted by technology
To do your loving best
Transactions during this time
Confined to contactless
More recently, I was privileged to be included in one of the Dreich Themes 2021 anthologies Things To Do With Love… just published, £6.00 from http://www.hybriddreich.co.uk . Click ‘LATEST BOOKS HERE’.
This anthology carries three of my short poems on a variety of loving themes but, to maintain a lightness of mood here, I’ll include only this one – the first sonnet I’ve written since leaving school. In Smitten, the poet addresses his heart in the following way:-
Though I cannot your steady pounding hear
I must address you now my beating heart.
Your ways are not the steadiest, I fear –
They blind me to the cunning female art.
All the sophistry that I have written
Does not assist me much in this great task.
That you are quite so rapidly smitten,
That fact must change – is that too much to ask?
Do not misunderstand – your ways excite
And lead me to experiences rare.
Adventure-seeking is your basic right
And love would not appear without you there.
I am thankful to you, organ, please know
But need you to be more select and slow
As midnight approaches and the celebratory day is nearly here, I’ll wind this post up with just a few brief observations.
For many, food is an important part of the celebration and I am glad to see that, even in these strange times, there are alternatives to eating out (though there is no doubt most alternatives are inferior). Couples are having Valentine’s meals delivered at home, some from very good quality restaurants. Others are buying prepared romantic meals from supermarkets, requiring the minimum of work at home.
I was also pleasantly surprised to note that one small business is specialising in preparing Valentine’s meals for one person. Without bringing down the mood in an Eleanor Rigby ‘All the lonely people’ sense, I think it is reasonable to point out that there are lots of people living alone on this day and there is no reason they should not celebrate.
Love may be current, past, lost, unrequited, or still awaited and there is nothing wrong with being good to yourself from time to time with a special meal.
I shall certainly be celebrating memories of love tomorrow and wish all loving people out there a brilliant Valentine’s Day.
(I add this reminder that, as the mad Advent Calendar is finished, I shall rest the Blog for a week to focus on other work, and thereafter will post only weekly). Huzzah!
‘Still self-isolating as much as possible as we move towards what I believe will be the most dangerous time in mid-January, I decide to make a short trip through snow and ice to a nearby shop to buy groceries. It is mainly for the exercise I have promised myself that I leave my car on the driveway and walk my hiking boots to what would usually be a very busy street. The vehicular traffic is minimal, pedestrians rare.
In the below-zero temperature, apart from the deserted clarity of the streetscape, the first thing that strikes me is the aroma of ‘weed’. I could not see any smokers in my line of vision, a line of vision which stretched far and wide, but the smell was unmistakably hanging in the pure chill suspended around me. Captured in the air there was an eerie wintry stillness which it seemed almost wrong to penetrate and there was an illegal aroma which made me want to giggle about its unexpectedness and unlikely presence in this residential neighbourhood’.
Better stop there. Just realised that that is the second reference I have made to a certain illegal substance in as many days. I contemplated applying imagination to my note, turning the above factual account into a bit of magic realism but that will have to wait for another occasion.
I am concerned that if I do my references to snow will be interpreted as slang for another illegal substance. Placing magic realism or other mixed fact and fantasy on top of that would undoubtedly lead to the entirely misleading impression that such substances assist me in my creative tasks.
I am aware that many artists, including poets, visual artists and musicians I greatly admire, have found recreational drugs valuable in their explorations and credit some of their artistic innovation and personal discovery to such use.
I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to debate their claims. It may be that I shall never find my true potential. I accept that I may never reach the level of nirvana they seek, even with my irregular practice of meditation. But that is the choice I have made.
So expect to bump into me a few stages lower than nirvana, at whatever boring level you reach following a glass or three of red wine.
Well, after a few days’ break I’m back on the trail of counting down the remaining six days of an Advent now lost in the mists of 2020. After this post just five more of that species to go, then this extended exercise will be over. And everyone will be relaxed (me included) knowing that my obligation to you will be to post on a regular weekly basis like a sensible blogger, using more sensible post-titles.
Today is about a number of things including procrastination, but I’ll get round to that later!
It’s also about snow and mask-wearing and exercise and related matters, though all from a purely personal perspective.
On the topic of masks, I am in very much in favour though I do wish we had access to the functionality of the type used by superheroes in Marvel movies. For too many of us, and certainly for me, it is sometimes difficult to remember to have the mask in my possession when leaving the house or, having arrived at a destination, when leaving the car.
In Marvel movies the superhero can be maskless at one point, then presses a button or makes a hand movement to become armoured or masked. There have been many times during the pandemic when this facility would have been a boon, obviating the need to return to house or car to pick up a forgotten mask.
That said, today was very different for me. Snowed in I decided to do what I should have been doing for many months. I left the car behind and, rather than carry a mask in my pocket I decided to wear it the whole time I was out.
I was going out in search of a shop selling snow-shovels and, as this might involve visiting a number of shops at different locations, putting the mask on and taking it off repeatedly just seemed unnecessary handling which would increase the risk of infection spread. So, I wore it all the time I was out and I think I’ll be doing this in future.
While walking about, I was pleased to see that quite a few other people had adopted a similar practice in their mask-wearing, though there were some who still had a problem with covering their nose.
While I was out the bright skies became rather overcast and I saw some of the snow alter from pristine to not-so. These changes became noticeable from about 4.30pm, when I was on my way home after a ninety minute walk, and that is when I really wished I had gone out earlier. These winter days it is so beneficial to experience the light as well as the freshness of air.
This is where I have to admit one of my greatest faults. Procrastination in many things. I have failed to take advantage of so many publication opportunities as a result of convincing myself I have plenty of time, then miss deadlines. I have put off outdoor exercise believing that my indoor Tai Chi will return soon, but it has not. I had a lovely ninety minute walk today but could have had a longer walk under brighter skies had I left the house much earlier. And so on.
In all of this I must change, especially as the impact of the pandemic in the UK has proved, and looks to remain, long-lasting.
On a lighter note, and finally, I ask you to look at the photograph of my house roof appearing under the heading of this post. Unlike some of the sleazier snow I encountered today, the snow on my roof remained pristine.
As well as being quite pretty, this also signals two things I don’t mind the world knowing.
Firstly, the roof insulation is working.
Secondly, I do not have a cannabis farm in my roof space.
P.S. The snow on the ground, apart from the evidence of my boots, is also pristine. You see, my search for a snow-shovel was unsuccessful. In fact two of the shops I visited told me they had sold their last one earlier in the day. Once again, procrastination strikes!
Should this dogged determination to complete a task continue so far beyond the long-expired days of Advent, I ask?
And straightaway I give myself an answer in the form of the following post, knowing that when it is published, only seven more are required to represent the missing days 10-16, all others having been recorded in their own haphazard order.
As I have said before, everyday is part of an advent to something. Indeed, sometimes a route to adventure. So these will continue to completion, after which I shall post only once per week in this Blog.
In the meantime this is a post with a personal feel. As usual I shall keep its content brief and easily readable but have an ambition to build its premise into a larger work of greater depth and research, accompanied by poetry inspired by its subject matter.
The photograph which heads this post is of my paternal grandmother, whose first name was Bridget. I started to think of her a lot as February got under way when I found my Facebook Timeline inundated with references to St. Brigid whose feast day is 1st February. This happened partly because I follow a Proud to be Irish Facebook Account but also because I have a few Facebook friends who have their origins or cultural roots in Ireland.
The Facebook links associated with St Brigid/Bridget took me to poetry, old and current, and I was delighted to find that she was regarded as the patron saint of poetry and creativity. I also noticed that one Facebook friend, the poet Raine Geoghegan, referred to her as goddess, which made me think she must have a pagan origin.
Sure enough, a little further research confirmed that 1st February originally marked Imbolc or Imbolg, a pagan festival associated with Brigid, goddess of fire, inspiration, poetry and crafts and that this was subsequently Christianised. Historically it was a Gaelic traditional festival marking the beginning of Spring, lying midway between winter and spring equinoxes. Originally it was celebrated not only in Ireland but also in Scotland and the Isle of Man.
So what’s all this got to do with my Gran?
Well, it has much to do with the way my mind and heart operate.
By way of background, for her own reasons Granny stopped using the name Bridget at a fairly young age. When she was confirmed she took the name Cecilia and insisted on being addressed by that name. As a child, I was quite pleased with that, knowing that St Cecilia was regarded as the patron of music and musicians. While I have found no personal talent in that area, as a child I had hopes I might develop in that beloved art.
In any case, I was always romantic about Ireland and it was her husband, my grandfather and namesake, who was Irish. I did not associate Granny with Ireland at all. She, like me, was Scottish.
However, getting all this input about Imbolc/St. Brigid’s day got me thinking.
I now have Irish citizenship, as indeed my Gran would have been entitled to acquire from her marriage to a Wexford man or because of her family’s origins in Newry.
I have in recent years achieved publication as a poet, and though I have not gained musical skills to deserve the saintly patronage of Cecilia (which was not Granny’s birth name anyway), it seems I have some entitlement to the patronage of Bridget, goddess and saint (and my Gran’s real name) for my literary efforts.
Frankly, I’m pretty chuffed with that and, as well as cherishing fond memories of my Gran, the Bridget in my bloodline, I am hoping an early spring in my creative step for the rest of the month.