Three Poets on World Book Day

Sarah Hesketh reading, Oliver and Claire seated

Sarah Hesketh reading, Oliver and Claire seated

World Book Day – and everybody literary had organised something for us to go to that evening.  Which is odd, when you think about it, because they all clashed, so we were all forced to just choose one. I was miffed that I couldn’t go to several other events in London and Oxford, but I went to Beaconsfield Library, to hear three poets from Penned in the Margins, for three good reasons:

  • It was nearest to home and I’m lazy
  • I’d promised myself I’d go to one of Claire Trevien’s book launches and missed the London and Oxford ones due to other clashing appointments
  • I’m supposed to be doing a review of Oliver Dixon’s book, and background info is always good.

This is how poetry is supposed to be: some chairs hastily set up in  a provincial library on a lovely spring evening; a cohort of older ladies who know one of the poets from a poetry group; a photographer from the local paper; free chocolate biscuits. And time to ask questions at the end.

The first reader was Sarah Hesketh, who to my shame I’d not heard of before, reading from her 2009 collection Napoleon’s Travelling Bookshelf. This gets my WIST award (Wish I’d Said That) for the most envy-inducing language. My favourite was ‘The Boy Who Read Homer To His Cat’, about a dying cat called Hengist, which is excellent in so many ways:

He thinks about a hardening of earth
about a barrow. The point
at which his eyes will narrow

to the split-width of a star
and he shall raise his rift of fur
against the northern winds

his soul flying out over the whale-road

Go well, Hengist! Sarah also read three new poems on the subject of ‘endlings’; the official name for the last animal of the species before extinction; a chance to meditate on isolation and death (so many dead animals!). I loved the poem about the last Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree-frog, saying goodbye to the second-last of its clan. Hoping those get published soon.

Next up was Claire herself, last seen in these pages running the Penning Perfumes event in Oxford. Her collection, The Shipwrecked House, is newly available, and blends Claire’s Breton origins with her English life. The sea features heavily; there are whales under the floorboards, rusty seas and whiskered fish. Wedding rings are twisted like weathervanes, there are poems inspired by Rimbaud and Breton dancing. Lovely, delicate, spooky poems, with striking use of language and an eye-catching cover.

Oliver Dixon is a little older than his co-readers, and although he said he has been writing for many years, he might not have published a collection if Tom Chivers of Penned in the Margins hadn’t seen one of his poems and contacted Oliver to see if there were any more. I won’t say too much, because I’m reviewing his book Human Form, for Dr Fulminare on the Fuselit website. The title poem explores material familiar to parents – how when you have a small child, you are never sure where you, and the child, are going to wake up: ‘Pluto and Tigger my feral bedfellows, / Spiderman lamp still on in the light.

A very satisfying combination of polished poetry from three engaging readers. And, driving home over the top of the Chilterns, I saw a UFO, which might lead to a poem of my own.


The Reindeer is Relevant to my Interests.

I bought a copy of John Clegg’s first collection “Antler” while browsing the Salt Publishing website.  I think I liked the cover.  But I am really glad I did buy it; it’s a superbly cohesive first collection and really ought to be a contender for the Forward Prize.  My reivew of the collection (with photo of the jolly cover) appears as my first review for Dr Fulminare’s excellent poetry site – I’m so glad to be working with him –  and you can see it here:

Clegg’s editor, Roddy Lumsden (look how I am a namedropper) told me that he’s never had to do so little editing.  Clegg’s poems appeared fully-formed from the reindeer’s very skull. Don’t argue, just buy this one.

The Lighthouse

Alison Moore’s hero in The Lighthouse is called Futh; the sound you might make trying to spit out an insect that has flown into your mouth.  It suits him, he seems to irritate the people he meets, but the subtlety of Moore’s narrative is that he doesn’t really understand why. At the opening of the book, Futh is on a ferry, going on a solo holiday to Germany, his ancestral home, knowing that while he is away his wife is boxing up his belongings and moving them out of the house.  As in Virgina Woolf’s similarly-titled novel, the action is all interior, and the plot subservient to character. Futh takes the opportunity on his walk to remember his life, and we begin to understand the conscious and unconscious influences that have led him to his present predicament.

The lighthouse of the title is a silver perfume bottle treasured by Futh as a memento of his lost mother.  Futh himself is a perfumier and the book is pervaded with Proustian scents; oranges, violets, cigarettes, camphor. As the book progresses, the fragrances seem to intensify.  The lighthouse is also the name of the first and last hotel on his walking tour; Hellhaus, and Moore weaves in the narrative of Ester, the hotelier’s wife, whose future we feel is somehow bound up with Futh’s as he begins his circular walk.

Futh’s innate inadequacy is shown by his feet; first blistered in his boots, then sunburned in his sandals.  He misses meals and mixes up his hotel arrangements due to an inability to cope with the world.

The denoument is sudden and shocking, but after the reflection it caused, I began to think about fate and inevitability.  Alison Moore cleverly shows that what happens to Futh is the product of his memories and experiences. It is this commentary on our inability to escape our own nature which makes The Lighthouse a strong candidate for this year’s Man Booker prize.

The Lighthouse is published by Salt:

‘Some Bright Elegance’

The cover of Kayo Chingonyi’s new pamphlet depicts a wall daubed with graffiti and blood, which complements the contents perfectly; poems with a distinctly urban vibe.  It leads us into a world of city streets and hospital beds, nightclubs, mixtapes and video games, a ‘citadel of alleyways and corners’ where each scene Chingonyi offers us, also asks us questions.

In ‘Andrew’s Corner’ which was anthologised in Salt’s The Best British Poetry 2011, Chingonyi gives us a vivid close-up of a London street scene ‘where flowers moulder in memory of Tash, / fifteen, her twenty-something boyfriend / too drunk to swerve and miss the tree’ and ‘alleys wake to condom wrappers, / kebab meat, a ballet pump’. Two poems are based on a Tate Modern exhibition by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles; ‘Red Shift’ is largely a descriptive poem in which the narrator fills his apartments with red furnishings – there may be a political subtext to the poem although Meireles denied it in his art – and ‘How to Build Cathedrals’ explores the encounter between indigenous populations and colonial powers.  One of my favourites is ‘Guide to proper Mixtape Assembly’ which reflects with nostalgia on the dying art of creating the perfect audio cassette only to lose it ‘so gnarled by a tape deck’s teeth it refuses to play the beat you’ve come to recognise by sound and not name’.  Chingonyi, who is also a club MC, implies that the instant and perfect accessibility of the mp3 has trivialised and devalued our relationship with music.

The title of the pamphlet is taken from the controversial black American poet Amiri Baraka, and a thread of black consciousness weaves through the work, most strongly in the title poem, which celebrates black dancers, starting with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and notes that the dancers take ‘the swagger in your step from the ochre dust of an African Village’. The final stanza describes small but hurtful experiences of racism, but ends on an upbeat note with dancers who ‘move as if it is only them and the drums talking’.

It is only towards the end of this pamphlet that Chingoyi’s Zambian family step into the spotlight. An affectionate portrait of his mwaice wandi – kid brother – and an ambivalent elegy for his father ‘known in the shebeens, as long John’  are followed by a harrowing depiction of his dying mother, the timeline of her illness and death measured by the size of her growing son’s shoes.

When Chingonyi speaks his poems; he has them all by heart, a relatively rare skill which allows the poet to connect more completely with his audience.  The same vibrant personality comes through on the page with language full of internal rhyme and complex rhythms. But it is the subject matter that most enthrals; I’ve heard several poetry grandees bewail the reluctance of British poets to tackle the ‘big issues’, but these poems do exactly that; issues of life, death, race, faith, family and authenticity are raised and meditated on here, in a thoughtful collection.

Some Bright Elegance is published by Salt, a poetry imprint which is coming into its own as a publisher of literary fiction, Alison Moore having gained a place on this year’s Booker longlist with her novel The Lighthouse.  Salt says that it plans to use its prose success to support its efforts in poetry, which is a laudable strategy if it continues to allow poets like Chingonyi to reflect back to us what it means to be human.

Mabel’s Domestic Cherry

Last Friday night when all of you were watching Danny Boyle’s amazing opening ceremony for the Olympic Games, we ventured to Swindon for a no less astonishing event; the launch of the second edition of that superb poetry magazine, Domestic Cherry edited by Mabel Watson and Ursula Pitt.

Below, life is a whole hamper of cherries.Domestic Cherry allegedly began because some lady poets thought that we girls were under-represented in the poetry mag world (a quick count in the latest Poetry Review shows the scoreline there to be Boys 28: Girls 29, so well done with that, George Szirtes).  Whatever – there were some great contributors in Domestic Cherry.  Several of them read at the launch event; sadly neither Sharon Olds nor Chase Twichell could make it, but their poems are in there.  Several of my favourite Reading girlie poets were there and there are a few boys in the mag too.

Between ourselves, Mabel Watson looks a lot like the Bard of Swindon, Hilda Sheehan, taking on a new authorial voice. Consider Roland Barthes and the death of the author; not so much the death in this case as a kind of temporary possession.

I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo of Hilda’s buddy, Barry, whose hi-vis jacket played hell with the flash on my camera.  But you can find out more about them both here, where there is also a picture of the splendid camel won in the raffle by Wendy Klein.  I’m not  jealous, even though I got the Marmite-flavoured chocolate.

Friday’s reading was very friendly and relaxed.  I got to read a couple of my poems and had a nice chat with Barry about psychogeography.  Their next event is October 6th, I believe, and I have already put it in my diary.

PS and there was tea, in proper teapots, and Tunnock’s tea cakes!




Nosegaies and Wickerishe

I’m a member of the Poetry Society and receive their quarterly magazine, Poetry Review. This time they have had a guest editor, George Szirtes, one of the best contemporary poets, and a great Facebooker and Twitterer.  He has certainly chosen a fantastic selection of new poetry.  The one I absolutely love is AB Jackson’s “Of Elephants” which I don’t completely understand, but seems to be something to do with Pliny the Elder reporting on the habits of this exotic species, which Pliny himself may not have actually seen.  I love the way the poem is a mashup of real facts about elephants and complete fabrications. The whole effect of the archaic language, the elephants doing ” a kind of Morrish Dance” and the fact that they “snuffe and puffe” is magical.  The elephants seem wise, and friendly and even spiritual.

Normally I am wary of quoting huge chunks of poems that are in copyright, but I can see that this poem is available on the internet as a PDF, so… enjoy.

Of Elephants. AB Jackson