Three from Carcanet
THE DAY AND OTHER POEMS by Robert
Wells, 64pp, £6.95
THE MYSTERY OF THINGS by Clive
Wilmer, 64pp, £8.95
A PERFECT V by Mary
O'Malley, 78pp, £8.95
[all Carcanet Press, Alliance Hose, Cross Street, Manchester M2 7AQ]
It seems a curious strategy to structure a collection in
such a way that the best poems should come first and the last dozen pages
bring together miscellaneous material, some of which is certainly less
concentrated, laxer, and even here and there feels like packing or suggests
poems not quite fully realised. Satire for one thing is not Wells' forte. It
is a pity because, by and large, this third collection is an impressive
performance by a poet who, at his best, writes powerfully, in particular
about men working in rural landscapes and about the degree to which they are
able to forge relationships, both physical and spiritual, with the land. It
is not for nothing Wells is a translator of Virgil's Georgics and The Idylls of Theocritus. The Day and Other Poems is divided into four sections and if some of the
poems at the end do not always quite quicken the pulse, let me say now the
rest assuredly do.
The tone is generally elegiac and valedictory, the book pervaded by death and
by an unsentimentalised sense of loss; celebratory events are relived in
memory; and explorations of the 'integrity of full sensation' (Keats's 'O for
a life of sensation rather than thought!') are recollected in tranquillity.
This sets up a series of tensions or ambivalences. The lived-in experience
can only be fixed in words once it has been lived through. And yet there are
times when the experience is vividly re-enacted in us simply by means of
As well as a Hardyesque consciousness of loss and regret, there is also a
feeling of journeying in the company of Basho. The first section ends with a
four-line poem entitled 'New Year' telling the poet to move on:
cleared hillside paler in the winter's day,
fire melting now, single, a sobered glare:
tangle and dead-weight are lifted away;
song of birds ornaments the air.
There is the spirit of haiku about this - present too in other poems - the
kind of immediacy achieved in Zen satori.
Many of the pieces are explorations of various kinds of 'difference', how we
reconcile ourselves (or try to) with Nature, how some human beings seek to
merge with it through labour, to be at-one with it and yet be conscious of
its ultimate indifference. The poem 'A Caution' tells us
the land with love, but don't confuse
your own flesh the field, the path, the hill.
pressed to serve more than a human use,
blankness mocks the effort of your will.
Wells also explores the world of others where experience is shared through
fellowship and friendship but where, again, 'difference' isolates
individuals, makes them, within shared experiences, separate from one
another. This gives a fine poignancy to Wells' thinking, whether he is
writing about felling trees in North Devon, living among the people of the
hills of central Italy or exploring what seems to be an illicit love-relationship
in India. Something of this latter is concisely expressed in the two-liner
was a dark lake in which we bathed together.
on the bank now. You are drowning out there.
Lived-through experience, shared with Nature, with others, but marked with a
sense of 'difference', separation and loss.
If I started on a slightly negative note, let me end by saying there is a lot
of very beautiful poetry in this collection. Try for example this Hardyesque
called 'A Memory of Exmoor':
Sundays, walking between the sea and moor
derelict woods, up to the dry-stone wall
That crowned the Sugarloaf,
linger by a gate among hawthorn trees
Encrusted to a grey coral of lichen,
Where a lost path turned off,
imagine it the setting for some 'tryst',
word unreal enough not to bed questions,
Let alone challenge me
the clear response cutting through fears and hopes,
might have come (had someone really been there)
To test the revery. (sic)
The Mystery of Things, Clive Wilmer's fifth Carcanet collection, is confirmation of an
intentness on what he calls 'exactness of form'. He is a considerable
craftsman, whose influences and allusions are, as one might expect of an
academic, wide-ranging, top among them clearly being George Herbert and John
Donne. Like them, he too is - that rare thing nowadays - a religious poet.
Here is his encomium to Herbert:
and again I turn to you, to poems
which you turn from vanity to God
and again, as I at the line's turn
through blank space that modulates -
resolves - the something that you say.
[from 'To George Herbert']
This play on the word 'turn' evinces a metaphysical turn of mind. It is found
elsewhere in poems where, for example, play is made of the word 'nothing',
which, as Wilmer understands, in Elizabethan usage carries sexual
connotations ('nothing', 'naught', '0' meaning female genitalia). Shakespeare
is in there too. Like Shakespeare, Wilmer has a penchant for ultra-serious
Above all, Wilmer is a love poet, of both Eros and Agape, and affirming a
relationship between them:
is no faith or hope that does not know
The odour of carnality, nor love
neighbourhood of animalsÉ
We are invited into sensuous experience, to 'bend and sniff' a dog rose in a
whole flower gives off sweetness,
Pungency deeper in.
[from 'Dog Rose in June']
But it is not sensuous or sensual experience for its own aesthetic sake; it
is a way to transcendence. The beloved is a goddess, an angel, a muse, who,
in a lovely phrase, moves the poet 'to my best of inwardness.' Shared
Eucharist is seen in terms of
come so close
is no flesh
the twining ghosts.
There is a wider range of poetry here than I have room to discuss: Buddhism
is made play of in some poems; there are poems that share Wells' feeling for
haiku and the 'is-ness' of Zen; pieces about a waterfall, about birds,
apples, making chutney. The main concern of this impressive collection is
love in its earthly and heavenly manifestations and the poet's seeking to
reconcile them. The Mystery of Things is a compelling read.
I first came across the poetry of Mary O'Malley in Three
Irish Poets edited by Eavan Boland, whose
Introduction to that book is a
classic of its kind. In it she declared 'The emergence of women has made a
new space in the Irish poem'Éthus exemplifying 'the dailyness, detail and
ordinariness of a woman's life in contemporary Ireland.' O'Malley's first
three collections were published by Salmon Poetry. A Perfect V is her second from Carcanet. In all her work she speaks of
alienation, of being 'a woman with no landÉ.disenfranchised from my own
language and shamed because of it,' someone with 'a need to stake my claim in
In A Perfect V she is very much
a Deidre of the Sorrows, facing grief from painful separations: a marriage
breakdown, children leaving home, home itself suffering loss of identity -
things we hold dear crumbling around us. All these have historical, political
and linguistic resonances too - alienation from what would normally provide
us with protection and security. This is a collection of poems bravely
questioning and attempting to understand and cope with raw vulnerability and
with being set adrift.
over. Again. How dare you agree.
you to feel me close and think ChristÉ
and beg. I want to slam the door in your face.
metaphorically, Mr Objective
the slip of my nightdress that isn't there
your fingers and hear the midnight
laughing on the phone when I'm kicking your absence.
[from 'The Jack of Hearts']
If Wells and Wilmer write a mainly rational discourse, O'Malley gives us a
richly-textured metaphorical one;
observed besides the fire blossoming
the house was a brown O on each wing.
taste the shining bone that would remain
charred promise in the morning ashes.
[from 'St John's Eve']
In this impulse towards metaphor that sometimes veers into the surreal, she
views Dublin's sidewalks 'littered with discarded people and a spike/driven
through its pot-holed heart'; carrying a child is the 'magnetic dock/of child
to hip, earth to moon'; the moon is scythed by two falcons 'into
crescents/that grin - watermelon slices/bled white along the edges.' The
writing has a heart-beating physicality, something felt in the pulse. At
times it even has a Dylan Thomas (or should I be thinking of Edith Sitwell?)
density to it:
cool fiery cat, close your eyes and fancy that
silvery zip-zapping scissory rip-rapping
only-pretending-to-sleep napping sea.
If in the past Irish women have been 'barred from speaking', poets like Mary
O'Malley have (and she has declared her indebtedness to Eavan Boland in
helping to make it possible) are now speaking clearly and with a powerful
voice that must be listened to.
© Matt Simpson 2006