Archive for the Reviews Category

Dorothy Nimmo’s THE WIGBOX

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Reviews with tags , on November 10, 2014 by James Munro

Dorothy Nimmo - Wigbox coverWhen I first came across Dorothy Nimmo, I thought she was like Sylvia Platt – only more so.

Mother has made you a house to live in
and she’ll make sure you live in it.
Mother has made you a bed to lie on,
she’ll cut bits off you if they don’t fit.

The obsession with pleasing – and being unable to please – her parents. The ever-present temptation to suicide.

Lying in the warm soapy water I do not
slit my wrists. I take only one sleeping pill.

The feeling that she shouldn’t be here at all – that it’s the wrong part in the wrong play:

This is the dressing-room I know is mine,
when they begin I’ll recognise my cue.
For God’s sake tell me, what’s the opening line?
Who am I? What am I supposed to do?

When they begin I’ll recognise my cue.
You’re on! they whisper and I face the light.
Who am I? What am I supposed to do?
Forgive me, mother. Have I got that right?

My voice is strangled. I’m awake. I shout
I know there’s something I must do today
and I can’t do it. You must write me out.
It’s not my part and this is not my play. 

But see the whole of this wonderful poem – “Dream Play” (below)

She had been an actress, spent ten years on the stage. Now as a poet and person she was not even one of the audience. She was outside the theatre in the dark, peering in through a window.

I was getting smaller and smaller
[…]
I went up the track on all fours
my petticoats torn off by the brambles
my hands bleeding.
(from “Pretend Games”)

The true outsider.

But if you turn out to be left-handed, if you suspect your name
may not be your real name,

if you can hear the cry of bats, if you can dowse
for water, if your dreams belong to somebody else,

if when you stand at the tide’s edge looking out to sea
you hear them calling to you, then you must come to me.

Put your hand in mine. I’ll say
It’s all right. it’s possible. We go this way.
(from “A Birthday Present for Roger John”)

So go as the sun goes, wise daughter, go clockwise;
wrong way round the church is another kingdom, the price
of walking alone is a sword-blade slashing the instep.
(from “Message for a Daughter”)

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Book Review: DANSE MACABRE

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Reviews, Translations with tags , , , on August 29, 2014 by James Munro

Danse Macabre coverThe world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.

The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten had been eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.

But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.

Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”

Long arms and groping fingers sly,
Fine shapely shoulders, and the round
Full breasts and heaving hips that fly
Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound
Against the place where we were bound.
Above spread loins my pulsing cunt
Between its gripping thighs was crowned
With gardened curls across its front.

[…]

But this is where our beauty’s sent,
Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick,
Crooked back and shoulders bent.
My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick.
My arse the same. To tempt a dick,
My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs
Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick,
A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.

Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where is last year’s snow?”

Here is the second stanza in French and in English:

Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Where is wise Heloise for whom
Pierre Abelard was gelded, then
Was made a monk in Saint-Denis?
For his love he bore this pain.
Similarly, where’s the Queen
Who ordered Buridan
Be thrown in a sack into the Seine?
But where is last year’s snow!

Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution“. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.

By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family. And I must tell you here that I had read this book, and enjoyed it immensely (and learnt a great deal from it) before I wrote my novel Thirteen-Card Spread, which is set in Paris just a few years earlier.

Magnus (review)

Posted in Favourite Poets, Reviews with tags , , on June 14, 2014 by James Munro

Magnus coverThis is the story of Magnus Erlendson, Earl of Orkney in the Twelfth Century; or rather (as it says in the book) “half-earl”, for there were two heirs, Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson; the story of Magnus, the mystic, who cares for the seal injured by hunters, who sits in the prow of a ship reading a book during a great sea battle, and was born to be a saint.

But he was also born to be Earl of Orkney, and half the islands support him. There is civil war, during which the islanders are reduced to poverty and despair. In the end, after three years of fighting, Magnus is killed by treachery when he agrees to meet his cousin for peace talks.

George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, was primarily a poet, and this is his most poetic novel, a long prose poem. He was also a superb short story writer and, like his wonderful first novel, “Greenvoe“, and the Booker-shortlisted “Beside the Ocean of Time“, this book reads like a series of short stories. Yet the same characters appear and reappear throughout, some (like the tinker couple, Jock and Mary, and Magnus’ boyhood companions) growing older along with Magnus, others (like the peasants Mans and Hild, and Bishop William) archetypes who are always there unchanging like a chorus in the background.

One of its most unconventional features (considered as Historical Fiction) is that it occasionally slips out of its twelfth-century setting. During the war between the two earls, we are suddenly presented with a news bulletin in modern radio idiom. Then Magnus foresees how it might be, how “in an evil time, when all the furrows are disordered, a chosen man might have to mingle himself with the dust […] Two images came unbidden into his mind. He saw himself in the mask of a beast being dragged to a primitive stone. A more desolate image followed, from some far reach of time: he saw a man walking the length of a bare white ringing corridor to a small cube-shaped interior full of hard light; in that hideous clarity the man would die.”

And in the end it is not the death of Magnus at the primitive sacrificial stone that we witness at all, it is death at the end of the white corridor, the death of the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis. And Hakon Paulson’s foreign cook, whom he orders to ‘perform the sacrifice’ is called Lifolf – as is the officers’ chef at Flossenberg, who is called upon to hang Bonhoeffer in a special ceremony on April 9th 1945, one of the last executions of the war and performed at the express orders of Hitler himself.

Unconventional yes, and in fact one of the best examples I know of the novel as an all-encompassing work of art, but not a difficult read. On the contrary, it is easy reading, and at times un-put-downable. There are moments and scenes which engrave themselves on your memory (like when Hild tells Mans to give the tinkers food and drink, and says “We’re only as rich as the poorest one among us”) and when you finish the book you feel you understand a little more of the nature of religion and of sacrifice, and of man’s place on the earth – and indeed in the universe.

George Mackay Brown returned to Earl Magnus in the short story The Feast at Papay, which, for those – like me – left thirsting for more, forms a delightful postscript to the novel. It is included in his short story collection Andrina, and is also highly recommended.

Book Review: DREAMERS ON THE SEA OF FATE

Posted in Favourite Poems, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2014 by James Munro

SF Poetry cover

I’ve been re-reading “DREAMERS ON THE SEA OF FATE” (an anthology of SF poetry) edited by Steve Sneyd. It was published by SOL PUBLICATIONS but is now unfortunately out of print. You may be able to find a copy, though – just don’t ask me for mine!

SF (or Speculative) Poetry can record the moment of awareness as Mystical Poetry does. Take the rag-and-bone man in a poem by W. Corner-Clarke:

He’s got rusty pots and pans
and Black Holes glistening
beneath the edges
of a dirty burlap rag
like greedy vacuums
sucking in
the summer light …

Or the “bloodless rents in the fabric of space” that P.E.Presford sees

Sometimes …
when the streets are quiet in
that hazy half-hour before supper

For what is SF? At its simplest, in a poem by Marion F. Eadie, it can be the impressions of “The First Man on the Moon”: in a world without sound, “might I but hear my cry!”

But that is not enough. Stephen Bowkitt writes:

I live for turned corners, the shock of where next;
green skies that swirl
in my coffee:
through office windows
smashed moons hang …

We imagine visitors like the “golden hosts” aboard the Carbonek in K.V.Bailey’s “Envoi”:

A jewelled ship, the Carbonek flies by,
now in, now out of Time …

Or look back the past with the same poet’s “Those Who Watch”:

We watched when earth was but a wisp of gas.
We watch it now.

We witness the arrival of an alien race in Dave Calder’s story of the legendary “dwarf”:

we who carry
the error of our ancestors around with us
in shrivelled wrinkled frames, huge heads
& eyes that shrink from light
[…]
nothing lasts on this planet & we
form no attachments with the natives
even the race of superapes who have
recently come to power are too large
& clumsy, childish, to talk to …

These apes

play a complicated
game called right & wrong which permits
ritual murder to settle their differences …
The dwarf meanwhile keeps
to my deep shelter
[…]
re-read the classics and write poetry …

Or was it us who journeyed once? Andrew Darlington (in “Vertical Frontiers/Prisoners of Mars”) writes of

This man frozen in
volcanic glaze
carbon-dated
50 million years old
shows
we’ve passed this way before,
he points at
the Earth,
and he smiles …

Certainly now and in the future we do. Writing of the “lady moon”, Fay Symes says

Dark visored, heavy shod,
He walks upon her breast …

While Michael Moorcock (a more masculine viewpoint) writes of being

Stranded on the bloody
moon …

And Paul Donnelly writes

it’s not the miserable whine of black holes
that you remember. i expected that somehow.
even the melancholy rustle of dead stars
only made me think of home. what i couldn’t
stand was the awful smell of the moon.

Back on Mars again, John Francis Haines (in “Time, Gentlemen Please“) envisions missing the good things of this world:

Crates of brown ale were stacked against the wall,
OFFICERS ONLY stencilled on them all
[…]
One time I palmed a can and sneaked it out,
Expecting to be halted with a shout,
But I was not and made it to my berth
And drank a stolen pint that came from Earth.

Andrew Arlington’s “metal traveller”, Derek,

is 18,
predominantly male, but
with occasional doubts
[…]
adrift
between Mars
and Manchester

he experiences

silent storms of
700mph cyclones
[which] race behind his retina
as the Pakistani girl
in the corner shop
smiles at him

Yes, sex as always rears its head. At the thought of “the whores on Hydra”, J.C.Hartley’s hero’s

prosthetic hard-
on nudged the under-side of the table.

How many prosthetic devices does it take to make a man an android? At what point does a robot become not an android but a man? John Francis Haines again:

Because it was a formal ‘do’ I wore
Blue jeans, T-shirt and my leather jacket
(The one with ‘Robots – built to lose’ embossed
In large gold studs right across the back)
[…]
While skirting topics likely to offend
(Like Android Rights) I must not tread on toes …

A wonderful collection. One wants to quote from all of them.

In a prose poem showing four “Still Lives”, Mike Johnson’s “Exhibit 4″ depicts

… a careful man on a tight-rope […] The thin balancing pole he carries is a fallible mind […] He leaps upwards, trying to fly into the heavenly spaces of pleasure […] Far below, in the feathery shadows, there is no safety net.

Or (one last peak) from “Delta At Doom” by Malcolm E. Wright:

The rains of eternity no longer fall,
The springs of life are dry.
[…]
We drift into a sea of homelessness
And drown.

The dark night of the soul?

Book Review: THE ORACLE IN THE HEART

Posted in Favourite Poems, Favourite Poets, Reviews with tags , on May 16, 2014 by James Munro

Oracle in the Heart cover

The opening line of this collection, “I who am what the dead have made“, leads us straight into the mood of the poet during the years when these poems were written (1975-78) as she was approaching her seventieth birthday. She sees herself as a word (“I myself the spoken word”, “Voices of wind and water / Have uttered us from the beginning“), an utterance of the past, of her ancestors, of the land they lived in (Scotland and Cumbria). Something it seems she turned her back on to a large extent, but now returns to.

What did I hope to find when I turned away from her …?‘ [her mother] she asks in one poem, and in another “Do I return / To the presence of the garden / The same, or not the same?”

And what did she find, what did she go through, while she was away? Is this it, in a poem called Christmas Children? “Little children running / Each in a paradise” among “London’s many-coloured fairy lights” and “Tangerines, sugar-mice, a star, / Here and now boundless / Their merriment.” But, she finishes, “the dark hells walk past them unseen.” Was that it? No, though it was there, as it is for all of us. For in other poems we find “yet this world, / Dark to the gods, how bright a paradise / When the heart loves …”

Another poem begins “Paris it was called ...”, was, not is, for to travel to this Paris she would need a time-machine.

Kathleen was above all a mystic. I will call her Kathleen here, for I called her Kathleen to her face and she called me Jim when we spent hours discussing Blake’s poetry and Blake’s form of mysticism. (And what I have in my hands is a signed copy of this book that I am reviewing now, years later; signed on April 27th, 1985 – almost thirty years ago.) Kathleen was a mystic and the great poems and prose of her middle years all give expression to this (or attempt to, for, like all true mystics, she knew it to be ultimately inexpressable), and here too we have lines such as this (from In My Seventieth Year):

It is enough, now I am old,
That everywhere, above, beneath,
About, within me, is the one
Presence, more intimate and near
Than mothering hands or love’s embrace
[…]

And since the utterance of the one
Majestic voice raised me to life
I am the part that I must play,
I am the journey I must go …

Which brings us back to where I began this review. At the end of the book is a small section of Short Poems, which is where you will find these gems.

“Ah, many, many are the dead
Who hold this pen and with my fingers write:
What am I but their memory
Whose afterlife I live, who haunt
My waking and my sleep with the untold?”

“I could have told much by the way
But having reached this quiet place can say
Only that old joy and pain mean less
Than these green garden buds
The wind stirs gently.”

“Young or old
What was I but the story told
By an unageing one?”

Perfect. Her name, and some at least of these poems, should be on everyone’s lips.