Floods inhabit myths, legend and our psyche. From classical tales and bible stories they appear throughout our literature. The flash flood in DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow springs to mind, as does Tom Weir’s poem ‘Monsoon’, where men wading up to their waists in water hold children above their heads “like an offering to a god nobody believes in.”
And there’s the rub - floods serve as allegory and metaphor through which we can chart the course of environmental and personal disintegration. Increasingly, on our climate-changed planet, we can now regard floods as a regular occurrence. Just ask the people of Worcester, the Somerset Levels, York, Pickering and Cumbria. Afterwards there is a reckoning; the victims of flood, depending upon their personal beliefs, look to reach an accommodation with God, the gods or themselves. They look for a rainbow perhaps from which to glimpse some kind of promise for the future.
Clare Shaw has published three books with Bloodaxe. She is based in Hebden Bridge and, unsurprisingly, this collection is called Flood.
She has been this way before. In her 2012 collection Head On, and the poem, ‘But drowning’, she wrote of
The weeds in the dark
slowly turning and rotting, the cold shadows shifting
the cold horrors growing.
Nameless things brushing my legs.
And always there, waiting –
a current to seize me and freeze me and take me
out way too far. Way too deep.
It is a reminder that Shaw honestly and skilfully addresses her personal issues through wider references. The natural world is in turmoil; the individual must seek sanctuary. When you have grown up outnumbered, talking the wrong talk and laughed at and spat at, could Hebden be that haven? She doesn’t glamorise or sentimentalise the Pennine town of “rain blowing sideways/on communal houses in minus ten winters”, but she recognises that it is a place of “peaceniks and loonies of various colours”, a place of poets where the sun shines on the stone. There is a sense of affirmation in her final couplet to ‘Who knows what it’s like’: “I grew up outnumbered, one hundred to one. / I found my own people. My kin.”
This is a good place to state a position, to make a stand, and the opening poem in the collection, ‘What do I know’, does exactly that. Or does it? Do the bald assertions simply introduce doubt? For this is a clever (not a pejorative term) poem. With a question mark attached to the title it would take on a whole ambiguous feel, not so much a statement but a confession of “not knowing”.
‘What do I know’ is in essence a list poem, one which might be grasped by workshop leaders up and down the country: write a list of things you know. And it looks deceptively easy. But the seven stanzas here, each of five lines or more, are not simply a number of disparate ideas. Instead, each item interlinks and unifying themes emerge: “I know I am not registered to the correct address,” “I know cigarettes are bad for me,” “I know unstable rocks can ruin your day,” “my father tasted of smoke.” And as the reader begins to untangle the various strands - the security of home, health and well-being, climbing and navigation, and parental relationships - the reason for placing this poem at the beginning of the book becomes obvious, as it serves as an ideal introduction. By the end of ‘What do I know’ Shaw accepts that the sum of her knowledge is unfounded: “I know there are 10²² stars in the universe / but I don’t know how many that is.”
But a basis for reading the book has been established. There is a knowing, but not knowing present, a making sense of that which makes no sense, an attempt to draw conclusions about a flood that devastated a whole valley and a deep reflection about instability and dislocation.
‘Rainhill Psychiatric Hospital 1992’ has a self-explanatory title. It tells of suffering, of how the years were like water (that image of flood again) and “how they dragged me under” to leave her alienated, dumb and unbalanced, a bleak situation in which to be. But this is not a victim’s tale or a sufferer’s lament. Pulling through is possible,
Out of my element, I learnt to swim
and was never alone.
We were legion and we came from the stars …
It is a reassuring image of individual resilience and strength of unity, but the poem does finish with a chilling reference to the scars which remain:
Nobody intended this story
but I have written it down
on my arms.
This ability to invest a seemingly simple poem with a pay-off line like a punch to the stomach is a compelling feature of this collection, as is the adoption of story forms which are normally associated with more innocent narratives. ‘Grim’ for instance, which features children in a forest, woodcutters and birds singing, must be a fairy tale, surely? But the language is uncompromising and the intent is direct. Children suffer, allusions are made to predatory sex rings and paedophilia, while those who suspected it and guessed it, “did fuck all about it”.
I highly recommend Flood. Like the scene of a car crash, I was attracted and repelled by it, by its overt invitation to voyeurism and its sharp jog to human empathy. Calling this collection a response to a town’s flooding does it scant justice; it is a howl against suffering. But outrage is not enough, crafting must come to the fore and through 46 poems Shaw demonstrates her command of subtle rhythm and intriguing internal rhyme. Sometimes deceptively simple in their initial appearance, on further reading all of these poems reveal a deep level of profundity, leaving a mark as indelible as the high-water line of a receding flood.
Clare Shaw, Flood, Bloodaxe, £9.95
This review first appeared on the Write Out Loud website.
Indigo Dreams Publishing
Based in Brecon, Wales, Gareth Writer-Davies has been commended in the Prole Laureate Competition, the Welsh Poetry Competition and the Sherborne Open Poetry Competition. He has also been twice shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Cry Baby is his second pamphlet published by Indigo Dreams after Bodies in 2015.
Readers of Gareth Writer-Davies’ earlier booklet, Bodies will remember his use of the striking phrase, his ability to sweep aside over-sentimentality and cut through to the bone. Often visceral and disturbing, Bodies was not an easy read. Cry Baby though, creates a different immediate impression where all of the poems are built up of two and three-lined stanzas. The effect is like seeing all of the parts of a jigsaw spread out on the floor and the reader must sift through them all to piece together for the telling image, the combination of words which will continue to resonate after turning the page.
But you don’t have to look far for impact. The title poem of the collection begins with the lines:
I was made
in a black iron bed.
The poem concerns ambiguous gender identity, a denial of expectations:
I was not the imagined girl
ready for gingham ribbons and ankle socks.
Instead the narrator refers to: a hunter of foxes, cornet in a military band and designer frocks. (my italics) It is not a clear-cut identity which is being presented. “I was something else,” we are told, and here we are left in no doubt about the life force present. In the final stanza we recognise the ironic use of the title, Cry Baby. The something else was:
a fist of a child
who bit my mother’s breast
and kicked out at rainbows.
Thereafter, Cry Baby is an examination of growing up in a fractured family, where parental discord affects the development of the child. In The Train Is Coming, the poet recounts his experience as a toddler on his first trip to London, of how his imaginative responses were inadequately shared.
but my parents’ inabilities
as we bumped along the track
Finally, the toddler is separated from his parents at Kentish Town. They are
two hundred feet below
lost in the puzzle of the map
and his response?
my heart were broken
Again, the italics are mine. The expected emotional response is clear but the crying here is manufactured. Genuine distress would eliminate the need for as though, genuine distress would be triggered by the perceived loss of love and the warmth of the human bond. You will look in vain for such things in this collection as the narrator feels compelled to play a role, a motif which is ever-present.
The parental relationship continues to be ruthlessly exposed and the effect on his own childhood is vividly charted. Autobiographical poetry here is not a byword for cosiness. Episodes are recounted: elocution and piano lessons, fishing expeditions and swimming at Aberdovey, all of them with a downbeat pay-off. Life, it seems, is a long sentence for the “fat kid” who “liked being a girl” and never doubted he would be a “star of stage and screen.”
Throughout Cry Baby, the poems are lean and spare, not a word is wasted and the discomfort is all too real. The effort made to sift through those jigsaw pieces is well rewarded, readers will emerge from this collection knowing that they have been taken face to face with hurt and confusion. It is a bruising encounter but a recommended read all the same.
Throughout literature there are numerous protagonists who don’t fit in, characters who at best march to a different drumbeat or at worst are castigated as mad. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and Christopher John Francis Boone in Mark Haddon’s, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time spring immediately to mind, characters who, despite not fitting in, point up the absurdities of society or the burden of being normal.
To that list of characters, we can now add Alan Siddall in Mark Conner’s, Stickleback, a character who might prove to be the most unlikely anti-hero of all. Siddall is a 68-year-old Black Sabbath fan who alerts our sympathies as the resident of a Mental Health Unit facing a transfer to another facility at the behest of the health bureaucracy. Siddall leads a life of apparent aimlessness involving a succession of cigarettes, cups of tea and wanderings around Leeds which often end in the police returning him to his unit. But gradually, it is revealed that Siddall has a bi-polar condition and a history of attempted suicide. But make no bones about it, as a foul-mouthed, utterly selfish individual with a penchant for masturbating in public, he strains readers’ sympathies to the full.
As the novel develops, our “hero” descends into a spiral of hopelessness as more and more drugs are prescribed and administered not so much as to “cure” him but to control him, to keep him manageable. Docility is prized above long-term recovery but the nightmares which these drugs induce become increasingly vivid and disturbing.
The longing for some kind of uplift or release becomes most intense and a tormented climax is reached via a masterful piece of repetition by Connors. It arrives via a brilliant analogy from the author, an analogy which incidentally, also answers questions around the choice of title for this book, but more importantly, there is a clear suggestion of how people such as Alan Siddall can be treated with compassion, dignity and respect.
Stickleback carries a painful lesson. We might laugh at Siddall’s, often profane and scatological, turn of phrase but it is a difficult read. It is also a piece of bravura writing, a sustained first-person narrative which reeks authenticity and passion. On finishing I felt as though I had been through the proverbial wringer, but as with reading all powerful novels, I also felt as though my perception of the world had undergone a significant shift. I highly recommend this book.
Really looking forward to the visit of Silvia Pio to Wakefield in Aug/September of 2017. Writer, poet and translator, Silvia has been a great friend of Wakefield writers due to her generous support for them on Margutte, the website that she edits.
Her visit to Wakefield though will be a chance to meet her in person and enjoy her poetry. On the Balcony Under a Full Moon is a taster. Enjoy!
A copy of this review also appears on the Write Out Loud website
It is always reassuring when you pick up a book of poetry and it’s immediately obvious that the writer is entirely at home with the concept of crafting her work, and equally at home in presenting the image which stays in the mind.
… this is the time of day …
where the breath moves
like a child among overcoats.
Julie Mellor lives near Sheffield and holds a PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. Her first pamphlet Breathing Through Our Bones was a winner in the Poetry Business 2011 book and pamphlet competition, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy.
Reading Mellor’s new pamphlet Out of the Weather, from the illustration on the front cover, Turtle Doves by John James Audubon, to the bleak imagery of the final poem, ‘Life: A User’s Manual’, is a deeply moving experience.
Mellor focuses on the particular in her poems - lodging houses, wasps, swans flying overhead. We think we know these things as we think we know the places mentioned: Woodhead Pass, Holme Moss and Emley Moor high-lit like the “sun on slate” view of the Sheffield skyline. But her imagination, her ability to see things new, takes us to another emotional plane where possession battles with love and security is pervaded with ominous threat: “I see you walking across the marsh.” (‘Grace Notes’).
It is the kind of danger that may well have been laughed off in youth, like the car with four student friend passengers overturning at speed and rolling down a bank, an incident celebrated the following night with a “fireball from a box of matches / a pub trick that set my face alight.” (‘The Scar on my Wrist’)
But not all experiences can be flippantly discounted. Maybe those we encounter in later life have a deeper resonance and can be more surely reconsidered through the use of extended metaphor, as in ‘Aftermath’ where one person exists on the surface of the moon while the other hurtles towards Earth hoping to reach supersonic speed, to lose consciousness with the ultimate aim of being in the position to “not feel anymore”.
Eventually, looking back becomes a more sober reflection as in ‘Here’ where memories of the past are economically collected; deprivation, celebration and faith are assembled before the inescapable conclusion,
… where family
is still family, though most are long gone.
I read this collection in one sitting, although there were plenty of pauses to let images and significances register. Then I read it again, acknowledging Robert Frost’s definition of poetry which “begins in delight and ends in wisdom”. Julie Mellor’s poems are delightful, they are imbued with wisdom and they are certainly thought-provoking. This is a collection I will continue to read and re-read.
John Irving Clarke
John Irving Clarke is based in Wakefield and is a published poet, short story writer and novelist. He tutors an adult creative writing class and leads writing workshops. He is a co-organiser of the Red Shed Readings spoken word event and edits the Currock Press website
Julie Mellor, Out of the Weather, Smith/Doorstop, £5
Robert Bausch, Far as the Eye Can See
During the last twelve months or so I have been on a roll as far as American fiction is concerned with a number of excellent novels read: Philip Meyer’s The Son, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Laird Hunt’s Neverhome and Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night all rack up maximum star ratings. To that list we can now add Robert Bausch’s Far as the Eye Can See which sits easily amongst these highly rated novels.
I am indebted to those good people at Round Lake bookstore in Charlevoix, Michigan for bringing this book to my attention (pop in if ever you are passing as it is a lovely independent book shop) and enhancing my holiday reading during my visit to the States.
As a deserter from the American Civil War, Bobby Hale is not the most admirable of narrators as he admits to re-enlisting several times under assumed names in order to pick up the related financial bonus. Without ever distinguishing himself in warfare he later joins a wagon train heading west where one of his first acts is to kill an Indian in an unnecessary attack. This, in the blunt words of the wagon train leader, is murder and the act sets the course for the remainder of the novel as Bobby Hale embarks upon a journey in a vast landscape where bloodshed and death feature regularly. Nor is this allayed by love. Hale is at one stage married to an Indian woman and whilst he begins to appreciate the comforts this brings, when she leaves him for another Indian he remains largely unaffected. He is later betrothed to Eveline, a woman travelling with the wagon train but he is unable to keep his promise to return to her before setting off west. That Hale retains our sympathy is down to his skilful depiction by Bausch and the authenticity of the first-person narration.
As with any picaresque novel, the protagonist grows in self-knowledge and when Hale begins to show concern for the welfare of others, particularly Ink a young girl who is running away from an Indian marriage and Little Fox, an orphaned Indian boy, he realises that man is always faced with a choice for his actions. As he begins to accept this wider responsibility, the novel moves towards an utterly gripping, heart-stopping conclusion.
Of course there are wider issues to consider beyond personal morality, issues such as the role of women, white man’s treatment of Indians and the establishment of law and order. And as the novel takes in the Battle of Little Big Horn and its subsequent events, it is difficult to ignore the metaphorical nature of the book. But whether you read this book as a personal adventure or a “birth of a nation” novel you should find yourself entirely engaged. It comes highly, highly recommended.
Exactly what it says on the tin! Or are they? These poems are about bodies or body parts: ears, heart, elbow, hips and nose amongst others. It's like a poetic version of a post-mortem except that the body in question here is still alive. Look away now those of you of a squeamish disposition or those of you who prefer your poetry to come in a more pastoral package. However, those of you who do look away will be missing out.
Gareth Writer-Davis says,
"songs plucked from the lute are complex miscalculations"
and therefore romantic, with either upper or lower case r, notions are disregarded,
"my heart has a job to do
and fit to the task
pumps blood around my body"
and the reader knows where he or she stands, the body is not to be worshipped but to be appreciated objectively for utilitarian purposes,
...are cartilage hooks for pencils and cigarettes
they are something I would like to pass on."
and the language is nearly always straightforward, plain nay blunt, so the occasional metaphor in the midst of this visceral dissection of the body comes as a big surprise.
"my ears are bats
and this is a clue that Writer-Davis is not just a one-trick pony, as is demonstrated by a series of poems about his mother. The Slim Shape is as far away from sentimental as it is possible to get, readers may feel as though they have stumbled across something which they shouldn't be witnessing,
"my mother was 36 24 36"
Feeling awkward? Wait until you read the next stanza,
"I did not know what that meant
when I pushed in
the pointy tip of her bra
and watched it pop out again."
But decontextualising does the poem no favours as the poet concludes with a frank appraisal of his mother and captures in three short lines a mistake made and indicates maybe a bleak life,
"mother was a flirt
who married young
then thought better of it."
The fate of his "first and only love" was to "fade away at the edges" as she fell adrift of fashionable mores. But what does the poet care as he completes the poem with the unabashed statement,
"my mother was 36 24 36
was without measure."
The depth of this love is demonstrated in the following two poems, Breathe and String, intense pieces of work where the poet deals with the illness and old-age decay of his mother and in both poems he gives lie to his concentration upon the physical. We are all more than just a collection of body parts as the author well knows, and despite an attempt to cover his tracks, we realise that we are reading the work of an artist who understands both the physical and the emotional.
Consequently, this is an engaging collection repaying a number of revisits but be warned, readers may well begin to reconsider their own body parts during their next bath.
Credit to Indigo Dreams who have turned out a handsome pamphlet which in terms of appearance and content will sit well on any poetry bookshelf.
Indigo Dreams Publishing
9 781909 357716
A visit to the Media Museum in Bradford and a damn good curry at the Kashmir. What greater pleasure can life afford? Writing a film review afterwards seems only fair. The routine began many years ago and the first review: Sam Taylor Wood's, Nowhere Boy is included here. But there will also be space for books and anything else that takes John Irving Clarke's fancy.