in the Soul
Soul Keeping Company Lucie Brock-Broido (160pp £9.95 Carcanet)
Taller When Prone Les Murray (86pp £9.95 Carcanet)
Song of the Butcher Bird Gladys Mary Coles (64pp £7.00 Flambard)
Improvising Memory Milorad Krystanovich (110 pp £8 Nine Arches Press)
is an American poet, and this selection from three previous collections has
been put together to introduce her work to British readers. Her style is
closer to Wallace Stevens than William Carlos Williams, if that serves as a
useful indicator. There are notes to assist the reader, and I like the way
these have been kept together at the back of the book, so that the reader
makes their own choice whether to access support or not.
The poems are strange but full of rich imagery. Sometimes it is that very
richness which can dazzle and blind the reader. Take the opening poem as an
example, 'Domestic Mysticism'. I read this poem as a hymn for Emily Dickinson
and Sylvia Plath:
10,000 seasons, I will come back to this world
In a white
cotton dress. Kingdom of After My Own Heart
There are further references to Dickinson, or at least notions readily linked
to her, and Brock-Broido draws on Dickinson strongly in the selections from The
Master Letters, which
is a reference to some of the poems in letter form which were found amongst
Dickinson's papers. Lucie Brock-Broido is interested in female experience and
there is a stunning sequence in the voices of the conjoined twins who became
elective mutes, June and Jennifer Gibbons. Extracts from their diaries are
woven into the poems to good effect. Some poems seem to defy meaning but make
their own music nonetheless, such as 'Housekeeping' while others are clear as
river water, such as the title poem 'Soul Keeping Company' which draws on the
ancient Hebrew belief that a corpse needed someone to sit with it, to keep
the soul company on its journey out of the body. As a poet who prefers
clarity when possible, given that words are blunt instruments, I find I
number the less mystical among my favourites. Some of these poems serve as
incantation rather than communication. Lucie Brock-Broido certainly works
hard at what she does, she undertakes a great deal of research and is
extremely well read. This collection will not suit everyone but I am sure
find English readers who love her work as much as her American fans do.
Murray is a poet much more rooted in things than ideas, but Taller When
to me to be tackling some of the same large philosophical questions as Lucie
Brock-Broido but uses a vastly different palette to express them. Murray
takes us out of the library and its esoteric air, and into the Australian
landscape with its harsher imperatives:
is the colours and smooth
'dirty' in some folds
the older ones would have burnt.
Although Murray tells it like it is and never spares the reader, there is a
kind of wild beauty in his work which is always awe-inspiring. He is a
watcher in the shadows, a cynical commentator who can surprise his readers
with sudden poignant beauty, such as in 'Daylight Cloth':
blossoms of fruit
lichen's brown wheeze
that has gathered in their trees.
paddocks have gone out
and the sky
is bluer for it.
sea coast, rebirthed
drives tilt, below
on the tail
ends of big seas.
Murray's editing of the scene leaves in the less romantic things in the
landscape, like the burned fields and the four-wheel drive vehicles, and is
the richer for it. I also applaud the way he moves from something small, the
blossom buds, to a wide landscape seen from above, as though he is taking us
with him as he looks first into his own garden, then casts his glance wider.
The language is clear and deceptively simple, but closer reading reveals the
metaphoric gift he has. The 'lichen's brown wheeze' is synaesthetic and it
brings in a note of levity and joy, in the wheeze of laughter it suggests,
from the splotchy shape of the fungus on the trees. The vehicles are
'rebirthed' because it is a new day. Notice too the subtle rhymes:
'fruit/out/it', 'wheeze, trees, seas.
Murray is always a witty poet, although the humour can be dark. I love this
small wide poem about a crocodile:
car with a chequered seam
of blue and
white teeth along its side
lies in cover
like a long-jawed
beside the traffic stream.
All he says here is also true of police cars. The precision of the language
is another joy. His poems about working life down under make me think of Eric
Bogle songs, but more up to date, as Bogle often writes about the past
working lives, not the modern ones with all their machinery. The searing
loneliness of the rancher is the same, though. For those who already love Murray's work this collection
will add to your store of treasure. But I think it will also bring him new
America and Australia to something on more familiar territory: Gladys Mary
Coles' latest collection reflects on war and its effects. She delves right
back in time to the Cornovii, an ancient British tribe who lived in
Shropshire, King Arthur, Offa, Thomas a Becket and so on, one poem opening
out of another and taking us through history in small lyrics totally rooted
in the landscape:
The crags of
creaking wind -
whiten the cwms.
When reading Coles, I always feel I am adding to my store of knowledge. She
often writes about little known incidents from history, such as Cobbett
arriving in Liverpool, back from America, bringing the remains of Thomas
Paine, author of The Rights of Man. This tiny incident allows Coles a new
angle on significant a historical movement.
Gladys Mary Coles cares passionately about poetry, as seen in her beautiful
poem about Robert Frost and the way he encouraged our own Edward Thomas.
These are two of my absolute favourite poets, and it is good to see them
spoken about with such love and intimate knowledge of the work:
to England, a road taken,
deep in a
summer shire. He'd recognised
the same path, someone
approaching him. Oneness
words and silences,
way through the trees.
Frost at Dymock 1914')
Coles lives on The Wirral, that magical archipelago between Liverpool and
Wales, that borderland which boasts its Wilfred Owen connection with pride.
One of the ways she acknowledges that is in a sequence of the diaries and
extracts of an invented but representative character, Private William
Manderson. Coles wrote the poems first, but has now produced a novel, Clay, about this soldier.
First World War soldiers were encouraged to write poetry as a way of coping
with the horrors they were living through but not allowed to write home about
- letters and postcards home were heavily censored, postcards were printed in
advance with gaps for personalisation, but little could be added. The men
used to score through some words to make their own message, a loophole they
were clever enough to take advantage of.
Often the diary prose poems show the reader the writing process. For example,
the sight od a dead shire horse occasions this short lyric:
by, he's done with pain:
life slit away.
First day of
He should be
in an English lane
spring, gentled by sun.
I want to
rouse him, speak his name.
This is an early poem. It is fascinating to see this character become more
confident and developed in his work, until the last poem, 'The Stone-Mason',
which is very accomplished and bitter:
He's now at
work in every town and region
names in stone. These names are legion.
Song of the Butcher Bird gives us the human face of war, the
experience of men, women and children, in the minutiae of everyday lives,
just as Les Murray offers the minutiae of life now in Australia, a different
kind of war.
in Europe, however, for the final book, Milorad Krystanovich was born in
Croatia, but is a long time resident of Britain, and he now writes in
English. There is
something of the in-between worlds about these poems. They are rooted in
nature and actuality but they slip through the grasp, doing unexpected things
with the material. Like Lucie Brock-Broido, there is something mystical here
and once again I am reminded of Wallace Stevens. It's the poetry of gaps and
photographic negatives, such as 'a gap between two rainbows' ('Escaping
Emptiness'), 'A gaping hollow of a letter-box' ('Entitled'), 'surrounded by
half-darkness' ('Hermitage') and 'under the pale distance' ('Today'). He
favours, naturally, free verse, because that organic form is perfect for
these cryptic and even vague poems.
To deconstruct a poem in detail I have taken one at random. 'Celluloid
Collection' begins with a stanza about sound:
with voices, the evening air
not even they
snow from the evergreen branches.
We do not know the subject of this stanza, what the 'their' and 'they' refers
back to, unless it is the celluloid collection itself. Grammatically that
does not quite fit, as 'collection' is singular and the pronouns plural, but
it could refer to the photographs which make up the collection. The next
winter hovers its soul-veil
the sound of the grass
rising up in
So the evening air and the winter are personified as trying to understand the
photographs. The 'sound of grass' is silent or a whisper, linking back to the
first stanza. The grass speaks in the third stanza, or is it the voice of
and draw your smiles,
you how to pose,
it is echoing from
So is the grass or the winter now to be heard in the footsteps of the
photographs? I am not sure. Final stanza:
the reverse of each photograph
feel the influence of whiteness -
path overgrown with flashes.
Again I am unsure what or who 'they' refers back to. Is it the evening air,
the winter or the people in the photograph? We have a twisting path, grass,
evergreens covered with snow, and possibly people in the old photographs.
There are many beautiful phrases in this poem, as in many others, and there's
a quiet music in the sibilance. It could be a failing in me, but I am just
left feeling a little confused, and I am accustomed to reading poetry.
All in all these are four interesting collections which deserve to be read.
They are not all to everyone's taste, but thank goodness poetry is a house of
many rooms, with the bricks made out of words, the cement the syntax, the
windows the stanza breaks, the heating the passion. We all have an itch in
the soul and writing helps us to scratch it.