Category Archives: review

Review: ’51 Poems’ by Marcus Bales

This is poetry as it is meant to be: evocative and word-for-word memorable. Fair disclosure: I am an online friend of Marcus Bales – and I am so because his poetry is evocative, memorable, witty… and it all rhymes and scans in the most natural and elegant way.

His collection of ‘51 Poems‘ contains sections with very different moods. The first ones recapture childhood and wartime experiences and then give way to my personal favourites, a series of poems of love, love that in one way or another is unattained, incomplete: Pre-Flight, “I called goodbye. By then she couldn’t hear.//I pulled the chocks away, and she was gone.” Broken Sunlight “streaming down his face.” Have You Forgotten “it all, and all so soon?” Me and the Moon. Dancing with Abandon. And Precipice: “and knowing everybody knows//I’m dancing on a cliff edge, unaware//of where the precipice gives way to air.”

Others of his poems are portraits of very diverse people, political or social commentary, and (most memorably) flawless parodies of Keats, Poe, W.S. Gilbert, Auden, Shakespeare, Kipling among others. It is in the parodies that he shows the greatest diversity of rhyme and metre, because his ear catches the rhythms of other poets as easily as it understands iambic pentameters.

Online you will find him knocking out sarcastic little quatrains almost daily in Facebook. He was a standard contributor in The Rotary Dial (now sadly defunct), and frequently appears in the Potcake Chapbooks. Read 51 Poems for the wit and the human insights, and you will be rewarded with memorable earworms of wordplay and verbal dexterity.

Review: ‘Rhythm and Blues’ by David Stephenson

David Stephenson’s ‘Rhythm and Blues’ was the 2007 Richard Wilbur Award winner, and contains some excellent poems. Its back-cover blurbs are accurate–as Kim Bridgford states, the collection has “wisdom, a plain-spoken, convincing style, and a sense of irony… all the time with impressive technical skill.”

Several of the sonnets are excellent: ‘Pilate’ meditates on the harshness of the law,
But why waste breath? In six months, who will mourn
This insect, or recall that he was born?

The ‘Geologist’ speaks of his passion for the history of rocks, ending:
The present is a world of dirt and sand
And people–they of the immortal soul–
Whom I do not pretend to understand,
Though I admire them in their long-term role
As precursors to limestone, chalk, and coal.

And beyond the sonnets are villanelles, and longer blank verse monologues in the voices of a toll collector, a housebreaker, a corporate hatchet man, and so on; and poems with various structures of stanza.

But there is a problem: the ruthless, relentless, metronomic use of iambics. The entire collection is in either iambic pentameter or iambic tetrameter. In general, the shorter pieces are good; the longer pieces are thematically interesting, but I find pages of blank verse unappealing. Stephenson can obviously think easily in iambic pentameter; but that skill tends towards blather. As the book title suggests, there is rhythm; but with insufficient variety for the claim of music.

But maybe this is expecting too much. Stephenson is a committed formalist, to the extent of having started his own Pulsebeat Poetry Journal for formal verse. His sonnets in particular are very good. And the book is highly readable and rereadable–though in small doses, not straight through in one go.

And there is actually one break in the unremitting use of iambics, in the shortest and most whimsical poem in the book–and for all those reasons perhaps my favourite. It is ‘To a Garbage Truck’:

Stop for me, romantic sloop,
When all your cargo is on board
And your ride low upon the waves,
For I would cast my lot with yours

And put forth on the open street
En route to some strange orient
Full of exotic ports of call
Beyond the gray horizon.

Review: ‘Extreme Formal Poems – Contemporary Poets’, ed. Beth Houston

Beth Houston has compiled an excellent anthology of formal verse (i.e. poems that use traditional structures of exact rhyme and tightly controlled meter; typically in familiar forms like the sonnet, villanelle, ballade, etc, but sometimes in a nonce form, a form specially created by the poet for that particular poem, and then rigorously maintained for all its stanzas). What is unusual in this day and age is these are all contemporary poets, for the most part American, though with half-a-dozen who at least started out in the UK. (In the interests of disclosure: two of my poems are in this book, and I am one of the non-Americans.)

The poems range in a variety of moods through a whole host of modern topics. With examples from first stanzas only, we have a flippant take on nature:

The female fly is nearly chaste.
She hasn’t any time to waste;
Her life’s a span of weeks, not months,
And so she copulates just once.

– Max Gutmann, The Fly

a rueful look at the military:

You’ve made us proud–the prosperous and free.
It doesn’t matter that a GED
was all the education you could get,
or that you signed up on a drunken bet.

– Barbara Loots, Thank You For Your Service

lighthearted memories:

In sloppy FM waves nostalgia rolls:
I wanna hold! You are the sunshine of!
Each oldie on the golden dial extols
Your soul, your body’s curves, your rockin’ love.

– Chris O’Carroll, Classic Hits

Villon-reflecting reflections on time and mortality:

Where are the flushed and frantic teens,
The hormones’ fevered ebbs and flows?

(Fire buckets, water, verbal screens.)
The girls–good grief!–that parents chose
And others–how the mind’s eye glows!
Who floated inches off the floor?

(Flout censor’s ruling–fish-net hose.)
With dodo, great auk, dinosaur.
– Jerome Betts, Ballade of Inevitable Extinction

pastoral descriptions of nature:

On moorland, on meadow, from dark sky I’m falling,
through peat, into pavement, I’m seeping, I’m sinking.
Above me the crows and the curlews are calling,
and of me the hares and the horses are drinking.

– Tim Taylor, Water of Holme

witty observations flavored with wordplay and interior rhymes:

I’m far from young enough to know it all.
With age my inner sage has paled and died.
My dimmer, dumber cerebellum’s fall
Leaves ever-clever youth aloof and snide.

– Susan Jarvis Bryant, I’m Far From Young Enough

But what you don’t get from the openings to the poems is that most of them pack a punch at the end. There will be a twist to the story, or a summation that recasts everything in a different light, or a straight-out contradiction of what the reader was being led to expect. The poems may be extremely formal. They are also extremely good.

The only regret I have is that some of the very best contemporary formal poets are missing: both the publicity-prominent (e.g. A.E. Stallings, Amit Majmudar, Gerry Cambridge, Wendy Cope) and the more reclusive (Pino Coluccio, Rose Kelleher, Marcus Bales). But happily there are still 37 excellent and prize-winning poets in Beth Houston’s well-selected anthology. So the good news is that a great many superb formalists are writing today, and–believe it or not–this looks like a Golden Age for formal verse. And ‘Extreme Formal Poems‘ is a very good manifestation of it.

Review: ‘Archaic Smile’ by A.E. Stallings

‘Archaic Smile’ was the debut poetry collection by A.E. Stallings, an American who moved to Athens, Greece, a couple of decades ago. Published in 1999, it won that year’s Richard Wilbur Award and its opening poem, ‘A Postcard from Greece’, is perhaps my favourite of all her work. It is a sonnet with slant rhymes describing a car accident:
Hatched from sleep, as we slipped out of orbit
Round a clothespin curve new-watered with the rain,
I saw the sea, the sky, as bright as pain
That outer space through which we were to plummet.
Stallings lives in the modern world of cars and planes and thinks in terms of orbits and outer space; the Greece of this poem is not there yet – there is no guardrail on the cliff-sided road, the only warnings are the memorials to those who have died there, who
sliced the tedious sea once, like a knife.
Luckily, her car hits an olive tree on the edge of the cliff and they don’t go over.
We clung together, shade to pagan shade,
Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.
And so the ancient world steps in to save her from rash modernity, and in this first poem she weaves the present and the past together, living as a pagan shade in a refreshed existence. And the rest of the book, and indeed all her work, carries on this integration of past and present.

The first section of the book is titled ‘Underworld’, appropriate for that near-death event, but mostly being poems such as ‘Hades Welcomes his Bride’ and ‘Persephone Writes a Letter to her Mother’ – there is a lot of Greek mythology in Stallings’ work, but filtered through a modern sensibility:
Death, the deportation officer,
Has seen your papers and has found them wanting.

In the second section, ‘A Bestiary’, she writes of her American experiences of animals and birds, in life and death and freedom and captivity, with her customary detached amusement. Take ‘Watching the Vulture at the Road Kill’:
We stopped the car to watch. Too close.
He bounced his moon-walk bounce and rose
With a shrug up to the kudzu sleeve
Of a pine, to wait for us to leave.
She observes that most other birds have to get in and out in a hurry, whether raptors or prey, and draws a lesson from it:
There is no peace but scavengers.

The third section, ‘Tour of the Labyrinth’, returns to Greek themes, but again weaving past and present, as in the reaction to an antique pot being broken. The final section is ‘For the Losers of Things’, echoing the sense of loss or near-loss in the rest of the book, but staying in the present – ‘Watching the News After the Tornados’ – or even the far future, with another of my personal favourites, ‘The Machines Mourn the Passing of People’:
The air now is silent of curses or praise.
Jilted, abandoned to hells of what weather,
Left to our own devices forever,
We watch the sun rust at the end of its days.

As can be seen from the excerpts quoted, Stallings is a formalist, and very comfortable with whatever form and metre is appropriate for the particular piece she is producing. ‘Archaic Smile’ is a superb collection, readable and rereadable, memorable, quotable. Her subsequent collections have been equally impressive. If there is a better poet currently writing in English, I haven’t run across them.

Photo of A.E. Stallings by Milos Bicanski

Review: Helena Nelson, ‘Starlight on Water’

Helena Nelson’s 2003 poetry collection ‘Starlight on Water‘ is quiet, reflective, beautiful and intensely intimate. Not necessarily personal – in some of the poems the poet has no children, in others a daughter or two, so there is no guarantee Nelson is writing of herself – but intimate with the senses and memories of existence. One of my favourite poems is ‘Ironing Day’:

I’ve never had an ironing board cover that fits
or a baby of my own.
None of the doors here properly shuts
and the garden wall’s come down.

But I shouldn’t ever want to lose my iron.
Pressing hard, I remember
grass between my toes
and the soft rain of September.

This speaks to several of my biases: going barefoot, enjoying rain, tolerating imperfection, triggering memories… and the music of casually rhythmical rhymed verse.

Not all of her verse is in the same style. Some poems are formally structured, some are free; the bulk of the book wanders all over internal and external landscapes, while the last third circles around and around Mr. and Mrs. Philpott, first one and then the other, a very caring couple of very distinct individuals in their mature second marriage. Here are some opening lines at random from the 19 Philpott Poems:

At the kitchen window
in his dressing gown,
Philpott stands alone
his sons have gone.
He’s on his own.

and

The sweetness of June, a summons conveyed
from strawberry fields, calls her to pick.
She drives to the farm, the car arrayed
with Tupperware tubs.

and

His father died at fifty-eight
and so he will die at fifty-eight.
He fetches a tumbler.
Two years to go.

and

Philpott’s anger lives in his shoes.
It tangles in the laces
and he wrestles like a lover

The first part of the book is about all manner of things – the spirit of a dead cat, say, or a night in an isolated Scottish cottage, or the teasing poem ‘Genderalisation’:

Women keep scales in their bedrooms;
Men keep weights.

The latter part of the book is just the Philpotts. What the whole book has in common is, without any sentimentality, the deep love that comes from respect, patience and close observation. It is all very intimate, and Nelson appropriately ends the Philpotts and the book with this short poem, ‘Love’:

He has tipped, he has spilled
his soul into her
and she carries it still
like starlight on water.

Review: ‘101 Sonnets’ edited by Don Paterson

This has to rank as one of the all-time great poetry anthologies. Yes, it contains only sonnets. Yes, several of them are dense in structure or in language (several are in Scots, with words and phrases translated in footnotes). Yes, there is only one sonnet per poet. It is very rich material, and took me a couple of weeks for a first read because there is a lot of absorb. And it has a fabulous Introduction by the British editor Don Paterson – a well-respected poet who avoided including any sonnet of his own.

The sonnets are not put into any formal grouping, but rather flow conversationally from one to the next, the themes often shifting through unexpected juxtaposition. So the first nine run through an amazing sequence of idealised love, woman as muse, kissing, sensual religiosity, obscenity, and charm. It starts with Robert Frost’s
She is as in a field a silken tent
and progresses to Robert Graves’ woman/muse
This they know well: the Goddess yet abides.
Though each new lovely woman whom She rides

to Jo Shapcott’s ‘Muse’
When I kiss you in all the folding places
to Alexander Montgomerie’s
So swete a kis yistrene fra thee I reft
to Wilfred Owen’s
Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed

John Donne’s
Batter my heart, three-personed God
William Alabaster’s ‘Upon the Crucifix’
Feed greedy eyes and from hence never rove,
Suck hungry soul of this eternal store,
Issue my heart from thy two-leaved door,
And let my lips from kissing not remove.

Craig Raine’s ‘Arsehole’
I dreamed your body was an instrument
and this was the worn mouthpiece
to which my breathing lips were bent.

to Robert Herrick
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness

The 101 Sonnets provide a wild ride. The next in the book are Poe’s ‘An Enigma’, Wordsworth’s
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

(incidentally the first sonnet I learnt by heart, one that helped shape my life) and J.K. Stephens’ parody critique of Wordsworth
Two voices are there: one is of the deep (…)
And one is of the old half-witted sheep (…)
And, Wordsworth, both are thine
.

And so on through all aspects of life and death, English landscapes, Irish history, real parents, imaginary children, mythology, poetry, the seasons, the close observation of small everyday items… Wendy Cope paired with Edmund Spenser, Gwendolyn Brooks with John Milton… A very rich and rewarding collection.

And the 17-page Introduction is the single best essay on poetry that I’ve ever read. Naturally it is focused on the sonnet, covering its definition, its history, its structure; but in so doing it talks about wider issues such as the nature of iambic pentameter, and in a couple of places it goes into the nature of poetry itself: it mentions one of the advantages of the sonnet being that it is small enough
to be easily memorised, which is the whole point of the poem–that it should lodge itself permanently in our brains. We should never forget that of all the art forms, only the poem can be carried around in the brain perfectly intact. The poem is no more or less than a little machine for remembering itself: every device or trope, whether rhyme or metre, metaphor or anaphora, or any one of the thousand others, can be said to have a mnemonic function in addtion to its structural or musical one. Poetry is therefore primarily a commemorative act–one of committing worthwhile events and thoughts and stories to memory.

Later Paterson states
Poetic arguments appear to cohere simply because they rhyme. Rhyme always unifies sense, and can make sense out of nonsense; it can trick a logic from the shadows where one would not have otherwise existed. This is one of the great poetic mysteries.

All in all a brilliant book, and highly rereadable.

Review: ‘That Shakespeherian Rag’ by Edmund Conti

The problem of being
a 17-year
locust
is trying to stay
for 16 years
focused.

That poem is ‘Short Attention Span’ from Edmund Conti’s latest collection of verse. Originally the title was to be ‘O O O O’ in reference to T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land where the poet is being criticised by his wife:

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
But
O O O O that Shakespeherian rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

It seems that the publishers sensibly preferred a title that would be more comprehensible, without the confusions of O and 0. So the next part of the quote was chosen–still idiosyncratic, but more useful. And, yes, Conti seems to have poetry singing rhythms in his head all the time, and he produces beautiful jazz-like drawings as in the book’s cover.

Both titles for the collection are pure Conti–he has a playful, Zen-like approach to life, highly literate, constantly referencing other writers (and other writers referencing other writers), expecting a level of knowledge and engagement from the reader, and often reducing his expositions to the shortest possible. So this latest volume is full of memories and meditations, jokes and puns, and threaded through with the words of others. Conti divides the book into 11 Shakespearean sections, starting with memories of childhood and youth, and then weaving through reading and writing, books and poetry, his neighbors and family (and their views of his verse), into a closer and closer look at mortality: the last four pieces having respectively four lines, two lines, one line, and nothing.

Conti writes both formal and free verse, depending what kind of playfulness he’s up to. When he parodies Emily Dickinson, of course it’s in her standard ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ meter and rhymes ABAB. But he’s a lot more free when he just wants some snide commens and a punchline. Here’s ‘Losing Battle’:

In a final desperate attempt
at survival, the sun sets
fire to the western sky.
Overblown, say my poet friends.
Cute, say my non-poet friends.
What does it mean? asks my neighbor.
How much will you get paid for it?
That’s from my wife.

My father’s an astronaut,
my son lies.

Engaging, amusing, thought-provoking, with many short passages that stay in the memory. A fun book for all poets. Just published this month by Kelsay Books.