Feeling Slightly Lyrical
Kilalea (54pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
Beneath The Rime,
Siriol Troup (92pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
A Recipe for Water,
Gillian Clarke (80pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
Draycott (66pp, £9.95, Carcanet/Oxford)
48 Trojan Herrings & Tripidium, Sophia Wellbeloved (114pp, £8, Waterloo)
poems in Katharine Kilalea's debut collection, One Eye'd Leigh, are quirky and often mildly
surreal. In the opening poems, the tone reminded me of Selima Hill, but
there's something distinctive about it too, a real personality voicing the
words, often bursting with enthusiasm, sometimes a little ditzy. Kilalea
likes to qualify her adjectives Ð to quote from several poems: 'left me
feeling slightly lyrical', 'it's a little bit lonely', 'we all felt quite
energetic', 'I'd scrubbed it very very white.' This might irritate some
readers, but I found it engaging. The neutral tone that permeates much
contemporary poetry isn't in evidence here.
Kilalea tells entertaining stories and makes unexpected observations. 'The
conductor and the world in the wallpaper' begins with a conductor and
orchestra onstage, his tuxedo splitting behind him. Reality isn't matching up
to 'the delicate sounds/ he hears in his mind.' Instead, 'the French horn is
grumbling/ like a shiny digestive system' and, as he makes his way home, the
sounds around him are ominously melancholy. In his house:
violins! The violins!
hinted at things to come,
patterns on the wallpaper
nothing to him. The ringing telephone,
dripping tap, the crickets...
It's a portrait of a defeated man who is no longer in control, not even of
the sounds he was used to conducting. The poem is well constructed, beginning
with the conductor waving his baton and ending with the 'dull and defeated
sound' of curtains closing 'which cannot be drowned/ when held against his
body.' The body language has changed completely. The images along the way are
memorable and unusual, the movement well paced Ð a good illustration of
Katharine Kilalea's style.
Poems like 'Recycled small boys' and 'A knapsack for lovers' seemed fairly
bland to me, lacking the surprise that characterises most of Kilalea's work,
but even these less substantial poems aren't entirely unlovable.
The love poems towards the end of the book dissected a relationship
effectively, such as 'The way we look is a game of chess', in which the way
the parting lovers actually looked:
very complex mathematical equation
for loving a thing and wanting
to be rid of it
contained within something human.
Kilalea's ability to control pace, tension and timing combine in those
closing lines, and the final mysterious image of moon-like, lit windows which
concludes the book, from the poem 'Alfred,' has imbedded itself in my brain:
you could take all the windows off this apartment building,
they would become a pack of cards.
Troup provides great variety of subject matter in her second collection, Beneath
the Rime: Auden
in Venice, a black pudding in France, a tragic sleigh ride through the Arctic
region, Dachau, and the 17th century Habsburg Empire all feature.
The poems are narrated by diverse characters and more could have been made of
that diversity. A singular voice is often lauded by poetry critics but I felt
that an elephant, a Japanese horse and a Spanish princess ought to have
sounded more distinct from one another.
Troup appears interested in revealing the world's true nature beneath its
surface; dark undercurrents impact on human beings and on their relationship
with the surrounding environment. 'On the Rocks' rehearses a well worn theme
Ð humanity vs. nature Ð but succeeds in breathing new life into it, due to
precise writing. Two nudists sunbathe on the rocks and 'make a fool' of the
wrapped-up narrator, but the nudists are described in the second line as
'like mackerel fillets', a layered simile that describes both their physical
posture and their helplessness. The nudists are 'keeping faith with the
earth', without a care in the world, when storm clouds rush in. The narrator
zips up her fleece and notices:
two small dead
on the rocks, their bright beaks chinked
cups, and all around, the sand as sharp
chopped-up fingernails varnished a shocking pink.
The tables have turned, and these closing images are also cleverly
multi-layered. The beaks are chinked like cups, the sand is like varnished fingernails
Ð nature threatens with a tawdry human face; the human sunbathers who have
gone natural become the victims of nature. What seemed like a pristine scene
is unravelled and laid bare.
A similar ability to reach beneath the surface, this time to uncover the
inner thoughts and emotions of a character, is evident in the final sequence,
set in the 17th century, concerning the Infanta Maria Teresa and court
painter, Velasquez. The tragedy of the story is brought to life and feels
satisfyingly three dimensional.
A few poems in this book were less successful. The poems on Dachau
represented a well-meaning but inadequate response to horror, and a few poems
built around the theme of memory, like 'Old Salt' and Wood-Burning Stove',
were fluently written but too predictable. However, I enjoyed most of the
collection, especially 'Motorway Bridge', in which a bridge made of foliage
becomes the focus of a reflection on public issues. Animals cross it:
into thinking their fragmented space
big happy joined-up world
heavy metal roar is just a background noise
all immune to now...
has become a popular subject for poems in recent years, the most high profile
collection being Sean O'Brien's double-award-winning The Drowned World. Water is so packed with big,
life-and-death themes and metaphorical possibilities that many poets must
find it hard to resist. In Gillian Clarke's A Recipe for Water, streams negate themselves and
yet find their destiny in rivers, global warming loosens the grip of ice and
snow, water refreshes, asserts mortality, sings, and speaks a multitude of
languages. Clarke is Poet Laureate of Wales and several poems directly
address Welsh concerns.
I liked the opening poem, 'First Words'. The poem examines, with great sonic
awareness, the language of the natural world;
the steel slab
syllable dropped at the docks; the two-beat word
Breaksea lightship; the golden sentence
train crossing the viaduct.
There's subtle movement from one stanza to another, the fruit of an alert
mind, of a quiet voice with something to say on the page about where
significance lies, and 'before you know it you'll know what comes/ from air
and breath and off the page is all// you'll want.'
However, the quality of poems in this collection is inconsistent. Clarke's
vocabulary is plain, the syntax generally straightforward, and she
communicates clearly and directly. The problem comes when what's she's saying
lacks interest. 'Glacier' is a good example. A Greenland glacier's slide
towards the sea is likened to the Abervan tragedy when a slag-heap rolled
down a hill and crushed children in the local primary school. 'The century of
waste/ has burned a hole in the sky over the Pole,' we're told (who needs to
be told?), and the internal full rhyme is needlessly attention-grabbing. The
poem closes with an appeal;
science, with your tricks and alchemies,
the glacier with sun and wind and tide,
the gates of ice, halt melt and slide,
the seas, stay the floe and the flux
footfall of polar bear and Arctic fox.
I suppose the prayer to science could be seen as cleverly ironic but, for me,
the formal, prayerful tone and self-conscious sonic effects fell flat. It's
saying a) global warming is bad, and b) O Science, please stop it, which
hardly seems worth a poem. A few other poems also lacked resonance (e.g. the
sonnet to Nye Bevan, and the riff on the shipping forecast).
This is a shame because there are fine poems in this book. In 'The
Accompanist', a singer becomes melded with the song, 'with something like
grief, like joy/ and is more than music'. That the transformation is
convincing is down to the skill with which Clarke handles the poem's
progression, and in the title poem, dedicated to the poet, Sujata Bhatt,
there are great lines and provocative insights, such as this passage on a
couple of swans;
and necks folded in one dream,
the colours of white, which only seem,
the very opposite of the blackness
black squirrel in Caracas,
the same, the one
rainbow, black, one spectrum.
Reading a Jane Draycott poem often feels like entering a cinema halfway
through a movie. You're thrown into a scene without the benefit of back story
or character development and any clues only make you curious about how much
you don't know. Her fifth collection, Over, invites the reader to step
over thresholds where the unknown becomes at least as important as what's
'Technique' expressly utilises a cinematic trope;
slowly round it, then picture yourself
of the rooms. Now move through
of the house as if you were a camera.
But this is no ordinary house. Every 'room' contains an image of women caught
up in urban disaster Ð a lost and troubled heroine in a slum, the shattering
aftermath of a tornado, ominous Hitchcockian symbols, a flood Ð and the poem
closes with 'you' being directed to the original room, 'the one with the
mirror, then look outside/ at the men circling the house, the one just
leaving.' The poem details a self-discovery technique, but the self is
troubled and the final image of the men vying for access to her consciousness
is disturbing, to say the least.
The poem blurs the line between dream and reality, the internal workings of
the mind and the external world. In that, it's typical of many poems in this
collection, where motivations and destinations are unclear or mysterious. In
'The Hired Boat', a boat sails from expansive chaos. The rowers tell each
other stories. They continue into darkness, each stroke like the 'turn of a
page', until they enter distant shallows where the boat becomes;
than a leaf or the eye of a bird
drank at the glittering throat of the flood
it narrowed to only a single word.
The technique of leaving narrative gaps to set the imagination to work can
only be effective if there is sufficient intrigue in the first place, and
most of the poems in this book were well worth reading several times.
The final third consists of poems based on the international phonetic
alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Charlie, Delta etc), which initially seemed like an
weak idea to me, but the poems work all the same. The fragility of existence
is central: people and things come and go, appear and disappear in darkness
and flickering light. The meditative tone, the clever rhythms and music, an
intellectual rigour, and an attuned sense of timing, combine to make this
collection an unsettling and absorbing experience.
opening 48 poems in Sophia Wellbeloved's 48 Trojan Herrings &
split into two sections and the first section starts fairly brightly with
intelligent, at times mind-bending, reflections. Her untitled poems document
fragments of memory and observation, centring on the perceptions of the
narrator. The poem which begins 'Subjects go by like minor stations as/ my memory
speeds through' slips from past to future and back again. It finishes;
...I am the
and not the threader nor the bead
I snake through collecting and
connecting unable to reorder, sometimes
chant the beads, sing their passing.
I read that as a statement of poetic method. Sometimes it works well Ð both
when the poems are in reflective mode and when they turn anecdotal or
humorous, as in these lines from the long poem in the third section,
'Tripidium', when the narrator talks of staying with;
who installed new ventilation
already cold house by having holes
in the floors, but she was kind
spent time with us, doing crosswords
There always is a risk of becoming solipsistic when writing poems so centred
on the self and that's what I began to feel was happening in this collection.
In one poem, the addressee pulls out his own toenails as a kind of endurance
test. The narrator suspects that all can't be well. The addressee had
previously spent time with the narrator, editing her thoughts on a piece of
paper, and the narrator comments;
don't expect ever to be
than then, or more loving or
The reaction to the toenail extraction is measured, calm, flat, ultimately
self-absorbed, and I felt that I was being kept continually at a remove from
anything real. This, and too many other poems, weren't demonstrating the
incapacity of words to size up the real. Rather they demonstrated how easily
words can be manipulated to avoid genuine confrontation with reality.
The 'Tripidium' section of the book is centred on an ancient liturgical
dance, the 'tripidium', two steps forward and one back, which forms a kind of
rhythm for life. The first main image, of people and events stored in a 'dark
larder of jars', is a great idea, and there are a few interesting narrations
and ideas in the poem, but much of it is pretty turgid Ð for example, the
psychobabble on parents who are:
ghosts of their functioning, held
prisoners in a Grimm spell, terrified of
their own lover, who is part their parent
part their child and whose rages mirror
their own of which they are also
The final section of Tripidium is on the Adam and Eve story, but a
revisionist version in which 'suffering and joy/ were no longer classified
separately/ or experienced sequentially, but/ flowed together through them
at/ all times, but the shock of this/ understanding numbed them,/ they
rejected suffering and so/ lived in fear of it/ their fear became/ a dread of
life...' This felt like a sermon and, indeed, given the random line-breaks,
much of the book might have been better written as prose. It may appeal to
readers interested in a certain kind of esoteric contemplation, but it wasn't
© Rob A.