The pace of current events worldwide seems to have accelerated. That is probably not the case, merely an impression, since what qualifies as an event must depend on the point of view from which circumstances are being judged. Undoubtedly , the upheavals in Russia and their impact on other countries are major events. Their impetus shifts bewilderingly fast. How can poetry keep up?
I felt compelled to write a poem in immediate reaction to news that Yevgeny Prigohzin had launched a march on Moscow. I had scarcely finished it when the headline was that he had called it off.
I wrote this article about my experience of crafting a poem about events that were changing with extraordinary speed. It was published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs. It includes my poem, Prighozin’s Galley Slaves.
Zoe Brigley, co-editor of Poetry Wales, edited the first draft of this article.
I have written a set of poems about the war in Ukraine. The poem in this issue is prompted by a photograph. That an image arrests the attention is commonplace but some images demand greater engagement. They put our imagination to work. They challenge, and call for us to do something. But usually it is too late to help the particular situation which was photographed. What can we do with the feelings that have been aroused?
For this particular poem, A Matter of Degree, I have used a formal rhyme scheme for each stanza: abb/acc/add/aee and each line has four beats. Perhaps this constriction is an attempt to control the horror while I interrogate the event, its aftermath and my own reactions. The first stanza is below.
The magazine can be bought: https://crannogmagazine.com/buy-current-issue/
A MATTER OF DEGREE:
Bucha, near Kyiv, April 2022
A naked woman in a fur coat, dead.
Condom wrappers on the floor above.
Whatever happened, it wasn’t love.
Just scant words from the news but in my head
they kept on pressing to be understood;
something for me to grasp here, if I could.
The condom-users gone, a woman dead.
But why in fur? A pornographic hook?
She wanted it so much she chose this look:
deluxe seduction, high-class come-to-bed.
Is that the fantasy they made her play:
the lustful woman who leads men astray?
My review of Damian Smyth’s latest poetry collection appears in The Cardiff Review but as that site is temporarily unavailable please see below
Irish Street follows Damian Smyth’s pamphlet and six collections of poetry. Once again, he roots himself in a specific place, his homeplace. This is the Ulster equivalent of y filltir sgwar, the square mile, that intimate locus of birth and growth, where one knows and is known. The three streets at the centre of the small town of Downpatrick near Strangford Lough on Northern Ireland’s east coast epitomise the three cultural strands of the locality: English Street (the title of Smyth’s preceding collection), Scotch Street and Irish Street. From this core, Smyth takes the reader deep, high and wide in terms of location, time and perspective. This is also a collection which exalts compassion and reciprocity.
The book’s structure is essential to its success. Its three epigraphs signal cultural boundaries, cultural assimilation and the manipulation of minorities, and the dangers of colonialism – in my view; they are allusive, after all. The 123 poems are divided into 4 parts. There is no index but a section, In Other Words, which is a glossary of explicatory or allusive references germane to many of the poems. This is a technique Smyth has used before. The section’s title indicates that it exists, not because the poems have failed in their task, but because reality is so rich that there is more than one way of communicating it.
Unusually, a specific title may be shared by several poems. There are, for instance, 3 poems entitled, Hero, 2 in the Lumen section and 1 in Metempsychosis, surely an invitation to cross-reference. This unabashed re-visiting of a topic typifies the poet’s confident handling of the material and, also, his remarkable spiralling approach to it: a moving through a topic and a return to it at some different level or point of access.
The book is also a kind of palimpsest: accounts are re-presented; a place is re-visited, a character re-appears or is re-considered. This sense of experience and place existing at many levels and within many time-frames gives the work great coherence and depth.
The collection’s scope is flagged from the start. The opening six poems are Mappa Mundi, Downpatrick, Irish Street, Blood, The Past, Unhome. There you have it: global, local, specific, internal/familial, time/inheritance, and home. We are in the hands of a poet who both knows where he’s going and also knows that there will be surprises for him, and us, along the way.
The final section, Marks, lists the page numbers of 189 topics or things that feature in the book. For instance, Home comes in at 23 references; Angels 15; Lyra McKee 1, Robotussin 1, Wrapped in a rag 1. This listing and enumeration reinforce the book’s perception of the variety and plenitude of life.
Mappa Mundi, the first poem in the book, in describing the sketching of directions for a tourist, deftly introduces us to the bewildering fact that we exist and are capable of seeing ourselves existing: the subjective and objective perspectives:
The Quoile as broad as the wide Missouri, your own street emerging
Detailed to such an extreme that, indeed, that is yourself you see appear
In miniature at the end of the road beside a car that’s pulled up,
In your tinier hand a sliver of paper on which you are already sketching
Yet another version of things you again feature in, which deeper scrutiny,
Nuanced enough, will verify as perfect in every account, right down
Into the microscopic valleys and peaks of the manila; and so on
Forever, even when you – that must be you – finally realise the sense it makes:
Endings are beginnings: that every road out and round is also a road in.
There are several unreliable narrators. We meet the late Paddy The Bump (who features on the cover) in the seventh poem and in five others. In Vladimir Komarov Paddy asserts he has seen a doomed Russian space capsule fall to earth:
When Paddy The Bump
Was convinced he had seen that capsule spin,
Already a Catherine wheel, in the sky over the Dam Hill,
We were ripe to believe the intimacy of witness:
That was his news, though it didn’t happen –
Not as he told it. There had been the radiance of Soyuz
Dropping like a tooth out of God’s mouth …
Paddy is ridiculous in his assertions and his appearance but, in the long poem, Apparitions, the poet scrutinises closely that photograph of him which is on the book’s cover:
My face as close to his face now as the face
Of John Doris, optometrist, who settled upon
Those orotund cheekbones and along that bald pate,
Long-legged glasses, lenses so thick they left him surprised
For the rest of his life, the better to see with.
This is closer than any could have wished for at the time,
Or tried for: flesh has its own luminosity, a light
Proximity will make unbearable, if not shielded by love.
By the poem’s concluding lines, the poet has reached a microscopic level of engagement:
In the woods of his brain, where I am now, listening, …
At this depth, the depth which love affords, Paddy has his dignity, his admirable selfhood.
In Buried Treasure, one of many poems about the proximity of the dead and the living, local characters live on:
There are dips and hollows where no marker is, but if you wish, I can map
Where people reside inside the planet, perplexed, their bony earthenware heads,
Turned like seashells to pick up the chatter of the living down in the town,
In the Arkle Bar or the John de Courcy, though no attraction will draw them out,
Deposited as they are behind a locked door, just yards from the stool they had sat on.
What comfort there is in their company, in their entirety guardians of the commonwealth.
We are offered many excellent images to savour. Of whins: They switch their floodlights on from dawn … and the canopy of those gnarly and small woods; or a path which drowns face down in a foot of river … and the black baby… / (Her fists like tulips, the soles of her feet already ruched as maps) …
Smyth favours long lines of free verse, carefully parsed in a variety of stanza lengths. Diction is colloquial and fluid except when he exploits recherché vocabulary for effect, as in Flight Into Egypt: the foliate spandrels of the Rococo tondo frame, with tiered rocaille cartouches…. There are successful sonnets, in both strict and looser form, and several poems in rhyme.
He is fond of bracketing a long parenthesis between an assertion and its conclusion. For instance, Flight Into Egypt opens with the line: But if this isn’t the single most important artefact in the possession of Ulster … – and concludes 11 lines later with: … then I don’t know what is. Pale Blue Dot goes further during its 25 lines: It is one thing … And it is another thing … But another thing entirely …The effect of this is breath-taking and dizzying but in a virtuoso way. The poetic control demonstrated justifies our hope that, having taken us far and wide, we will be landed safely on new ground.
Touches of wry humour abound, my favourite being the perceptive 5-line poem, Dipper which treats of a sheep in terms of the Egyptian royalty and a figurine from Ur / Gold leaf and lapis lit from within; those ankles, slim, elegant, worshipped.
The collection’s second poem, Downpatrick sets the tenor of the book by its depiction, as though in a miniature, of the single thing that might save its soul / When pestilence falls, rescue each mean inhabitant from ruin in every century / To come … and that is the kindness of the inhabitants towards the son of a pharmacist who tended to those who had nothing, for nothing. He has been merciful to them; they reciprocate by being gentle and generous towards his vulnerable son. Smyth makes clear that this reciprocity is in the reach of any town and, by implication, any of us.
Irish Street, Downpatrick
Photo below, the junction described in ‘St Brigid’s Day’
Because you could drop a rushy cross on the towncentre
And it would fit its articulate legs up each of the four streets,
Like its hips are broken, it’s clear that all the tales are true,
Especially the most unlikely.
Irish, English and Scotch Streets meet in exactly this way, as anyone who has ever seen them, or seen a St Brigid’s Cross, will agree.
Available from Irish Street – templarpoetry in paperback 12.00 or hardback 14.99.
I am honoured and delighted to have my poem on the Irish Civil War among the 20 poems related to the Decade of Centenaries 1912 – 1922 that are featured in the Poetry As Commemoration Poetry Juke Boxes in Derry and Limerick from May to July this year.
The Irish Civil War, County Tipperary, Summer, 1922 describes an incident in which my mother, then a seven-year-old, was caught up. Her memories of violence influenced my experience of The Troubles.
I’ve written about this in an earlier blog (below) which contains a link to the poem on the Virtual Poetry Wall of Poetry As Commemoration.
On 23rd August I took part in a reading at Derry’s Verbal Arts Centre, featuring Stephen Sexton (one of the ten poets commissioned by the project) along with Carole Farnan, Maria McManus, Julie Morrissy, and Dominic J. Sweeney.
You can listen to the poems featured in this curation here.
- ‘Ossuary’ by Seán Hewitt
- ‘Poppies In A Field Of Shamrocks’ by Nithy Kasa
- ‘The Belfast Pogrom: Some Observations’ by Paul Muldoon
- ‘Hogan, Grianghrafadóir’ by Aifric Mac Aodha & transl. by David Wheatley
- ‘Blood pulled my Shoe Off: The Birth of the Freestate in the Words of Máire Comerford’ by Martina Evans
- ‘Wound’ by Chiamaka Enyi Amadi
- ‘The Head of a Man’ by Stephen Sexton
- ‘Special Topics in Commemoration Studies: The Kerry Archives’ by Victoria Kennefick
- ‘The Lookout’ by Bebe Ashley
- ‘This Video Has No Sound’ by Padraig Regan
- ‘Faithful Comrade and Life Long Friend’ by Julie Morrissy
- ‘Telescope’ by Eoghan Totten
- ‘Without Fuss or Splutter’ by Ann-Marie Foster
- ‘Uncle Maurice’ by Ian Duhig
- ‘The Irish Civil War, Co. Tipperary, Summer 1922’ by Angela Graham
- ‘Bloody Sunday, 21st of November 1920, Croke Park’ by David McLoghlin
- ‘Cogadh na gCarad ó Bhéal mo mháthar’ by Mike MacDomhnaill
- ‘Eliza’ by Karl O’Hanlon
- ‘Yew’ by Karen J. McDonnell
- ‘Kingdom’ by Brian Kirk
By Caroline Bracken:
Angela Graham’s poetry collection ‘Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere‘ is an interesting concept. As well as her own poems, it includes poems she wrote collaboratively with Phil Cope, Viviana Fiorentino, Mahyar and Csilla Toldy.
Her mentor Glen Wilson also contributed a poem, ‘Border Crossing, Reynosa to Hidalgo’, a gorgeous poem with more questions than answers:
‘There is buzzing behind the bevel of the two-way mirror,
I imagine the voices of the hidden judges there’
The collaborative poems all allow the contributing poets’ voices to shine and feel very different to Graham’s own. For example Mahyar’s ‘You’ is end-rhymed:
‘When I was drinking shot after shot
When I was reading Rubaiyat
When I was reading Khayyam’s couplets
When the book got wet with my tears’ droplets’
Csilla Toldy’s ‘Sanctum Trilogy’ is written in three sections, ‘Resistance’ ‘Refuge’ and ‘Resilience’ and is more experimental in form:
‘Forget the borders, tie up your tongue
here you are safe – between the walls of this place.
Stay put for now, We will decide –
w a i t
w a i t
w a i t’
Phil Cope gives us a panoramic, bird’s-eye sequence of the Welsh landscape:
‘A brace of peregrines, monogamous
though solitary throughout the year,
rendezvous up here each April,
drawn by this cliff’s magnetism,
egged on by legacy,
reliable in the knowledge of
a ledge, secure on Darren Fawr
to raise two chicks, then leave.’
Angela Graham’s wonderful poem ‘A Heerd tha Sodjer on tha Radio’ which won the Linen Hall Ulster Scots Writing Competition is included. Her other poems work best when they steer away from prose and allow the image to be seen, as in ‘Annunciation, Visitation’
‘After the angel left her what was the girl to do?
I see her stand, go to the window,
look out at the utterly familiar street.
A neighbour, jovial, passes and she smiles
─ too soon for speech. She looks down
at her utterly familiar hand
resting on the white stone sill.’
And ‘Persian New Year’
‘Let me give you gorse,
the ungraspable, the unlikely
solder-drops splattered on my hedges
by the sun torching its way out of winter.’
The last word goes to Viviana Fiorentino, from ‘In This Sanctuary’
‘You blue tit, jackdaw or young doe
you, overflow, the breaker of borders
of species, you know it will not matter
that you were males or females, your voice
“hugely experimental… as praxis, the project seems politically perfect, an unselfish poetic gesture underlining the ‘unevenness’ of sanctuary that is genuinely thought-provoking.” Tim Murphy
I was delighted to read from my poetry collection at arts space, The Green Room above Sustainable Wales’s colourful, intriguing shop, SUSSED Wales. This is an ethical community co-operative selling fair trade local and international goods in James Street, Porthcawl. Commitment to a just food policy is a major focus. What better time than the start of
A special dinner will be held at Porthcawl’s Atlantic Hotel to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Sustainable Wales. 8th March. Tickets here. Continue reading Sanctuary reading at Sustainable Wales