Sunday 27 January 2019

Ross Wilson's poems in The Dark Horse

The latest issue (nº40) of The Dark Horse is a corker. Many readers have already mentioned their own favourites via social media, highlighting above all Rob A. MacKenzie's thought-provoking essay on Fascism and Criticism, which I too very much enjoyed as a counterpoint to the Twitter storm that was whipped up by the Martínez de las Rivas controversy.

However, my personal preference in this issue is for the poems by Ross Wilson. Apart from stoking debates, a key part of any poetry magazine's role is to enable its readers to discover poets that are new to them, and Gerry Cambridge has done an excellent job here in selecting these pieces. Wilson's endings are especially well executed. Here are two of them from Shine and Fitwork:

...I catch what I can with my pen
so that when you read this poem
the light that graced you as a bairn
will shine in you again.

going on forty, I feel
clock hands speeding up
as my hands and feet slow down.

I'll now be seeking out Wilson's first full collection and reporting back here in due course.

Monday 21 January 2019

A poem by M.R. Peacocke

Original poetry seldom features on Rogue Strands. Today is an exception.

I recently received a copy of M.R. Peacocke's pamphlet, Honeycomb (HappenStance Press, 2018), was hugely impressed and have since been hunting down this veteran poet's back catalogue. A review will be forthcoming here in due course, but I'd also like to contribute in some additional way to seeking out more readers for Peacocke's terrific poetry.

As a consequence, I feel privileged and honoured that Helena Nelson at HappenStance (and the poet herself) should have granted me permission to post one of my favourite poems from the collection. M.R. Peacocke's work is clear and vivid, yet also layered. She gives the lie to false assumptions that accessible poems must be facile. Instead, she makes every word graft its socks off, as this piece amply demonstrates:


Once there was running, a spurt of joy
in the feet, some unbidden riot
under the skin. Then there was running,
willed. Now the body's dull as lips
of animals mumbling frozen grass,
and if I say, Do you remember running?
it pauses, puzzled. It knows its tasks.
It can't recall.

M.R. Peacocke

The line endings in this poem are a joy, but my personal preference is L3 to L4. The whole piece lifts off from the moment that willed is held over from the end of L3 and dropped into the start of L4. The word shakes us. It makes us pause and reassess spurt of joy and unbidden riot in its light, before we move on to the rest of the poem with a sudden understanding of its ramifications. Only outstanding poets are capable of such adroit control of language.

I very much hope this post will encourage you to get hold of a copy of M.R. Peacocke's pamphlet, Honeycomb, for yourself. And that's why I'll now make a second exception to my usual rules by finishing with a shameless plug, mentioning that you can buy it at the HappenStance Press website here.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

The reinvention of tradition and myth, Anna Saunders' Ghosting for Beginners

In the title poem to her collection Ghosting for Beginners (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2018), Anna Saunders takes a traditional theme in literature through the ages – ghosts – and reinvents it in a contemporary context, as is reflected by the poem’s opening lines:

Having only the suggestion of fingers, ghosts
are unable to embrace the internet…

The pivotal juxtaposition here is that of ghosts and the internet, and it’s no coincidence that Saunders should have placed the two terms at the end of consecutive lines. This juxtaposition is intended to startle the reader, opening up possibilities and connections that cast renewed light on a classical element of the myth kitty, as in the following extract:

…Simply disappear from her Twitter feed,
become invisible on her wall,
leave vast gaps between texts…

In the above quote, the three verbs are key. The poem’s title has already turned ghosting into a verb, and these three now provide examples of just how that conversion manifests itself.  Syntax is thus being refreshed at the same time as semantics: the reader is reminded that language is continually evolving and that “to ghost somebody” involves generating a new meaning from an old verb.

The poem’s ending, meanwhile, brings the two strands of traditional and contemporary language and themes together beautifully:

…Oh ethereal fingers
unable to click in unfriend.

The penultimate line begins with a classical tone and device, following them up in the final line with one of the freshest verbs on the block.

As discussed above, the collection’s title poem, Ghosting for Beginners, epitomizes Anna Saunders’ capacity for subtle, implicit riffs on the comparisons and contrasts that can be made between the old and the new. Throughout the book, she explores ways in which tradition and myth can be subverted to cast different perspectives on highly contemporary issues. She’s changed my attitude to ghosts forever!

Sunday 13 January 2019

Reading in Lewes on Thursday

Just a quick reminder that I'll be reading at Needlewriters in Lewes this coming Thursday, 17th January, at 7.45p.m.. The venue is upstairs at the John Harvey Tavern and tickets are five pounds. I'll be appearing alongside Ansy Boothroyd and Janet Sutherland, and I'm especially looking forward to hearing Janet read from her new collection, Home Farm.

Robin Houghton has kindly sent me this flyer for the event:

Thursday 3 January 2019

Michael Laskey, a major poet in a minor key

Poets, like friends and lovers, must encounter us at just the right moment in our lives if we are fully to connect. One such example, in my case, is the poetry of Michael Laskey.

I first read Laskey’s work back in 1999, when his collection The Tightrope Wedding was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. I recall coming to a swift dismissal borne out of youth: his work seemed insubstantial. Nevertheless, this year at Poetry in Aldeburgh, while waiting to give my own reading, I flicked through the accumulated books for sale at the venue and encountered The Man Alone, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstep, 2007). On skimming through a couple of pieces, I was immediately hooked.

Michael Laskey’s poetry is deceptive. Its emotional power and depth creep up on you and take you by surprise. In terms of cadence, meanwhile, his matter-of-fact tone is underpinned by a delicate musicality. Its accumulative, layered effects are thus difficult to convey via short quotes, although the following extract from Patient Recordshould give a flavour of what I mean:

…I’m writing it down so I don’t forget it –
this year you’ve lived through
with what the oncologist called
fortitude, an unusual word.

The line endings here are exquisitely judged. One key word – fortitude – is held over and dropped into the following line like a laser-guided missile. As for the ending, that’s the type of Laskey touch that so frustrated me nineteen years ago and so delights me now. His knack for understatement means that what he holds back, what is left unsaid, is actually more resonant than what he explicitly articulates. As a consequence, the poem finishes by opening and echoing outwards rather than limiting itself to neat conclusions.

This technique is a sign of a poet who works in a minor key but with major ambitions and achievements. Of course, it’s only too easy to miss the impact of Michael Laskey’s work if we race through it in search of the fireworks or the punch line. Instead, his poems reward slow reading, which enables us to engage with his music and connect his life to ours.

I thoroughly recommend The Man Alone, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstep, 2007)  as an excellent introduction to his work, while his latest collection, Weighing the Present (Smith/Doorstep, 2014) is an exceptional book. Its limited critical reception is a travesty but also a reflection of current trends. Laskey’s poetry, however, is built to last, and it will resonate long into the future.