Elizabeth Kemball reviews ‘Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere’ (Seren Books) in ‘Poetry Wales’ Summer 2023
Extract – ‘Angela Graham’s timely collection … unflinchingly addresses challenging issues of the current climate, from the pandemic to war in the Ukraine with a tender voice that is respectful of the subject matter… Through Graham’s collaboration with the five other poets who feature in this collection, the additional voices add to the exploration of what sanctuary is to each of us and how much this adapts and transforms in the face of upheaval and global turmoil… this collaborative approach only strengthens the message and quality of the work… In the poem ‘Since The Evacuations from Kabul’ we are asked the question that is essential to these poems
Is there a scathing truth we have to face,
that outside every sanctuary there’s a hell
where howling crowds who crave the sacred space
clamour to join the saved?
This stanza deftly cuts to the root of sanctuary: if it is a place then it is also a privilege, do which of us are allowed in?’
Writing of the inclusion in the book of a poem by each of Mahyar, Csilla Toldy, Viviana Fiorentino, Phil Cope and Glen Wilson:
‘This collaborative approach only strengthens the message and quality of the work within, as Graham explains in the foreword ‘TO eb permitted to engage at increasingly deepr levels challenges poth parties… something new emerges… and we go ahead in the pursuit of the true, the real, the poetically beautiful’ – this too is true of the idea of sanctuary, which becomes more rounded with the inclusion of multiple voices…
‘Angela Graham ends … with a poem about home. ‘Home’ is a hopeful piece that emphasises that at the heart of sanctuary is humanity: ‘We are a home for one another. And this holds true for everyone’. These final lines are perhaps the most poignant in the whole collection and remind us… that in turbulence of mundanity, whether human or animal, we each must carve a space to fit ourselves, around each other.’
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.
It is an honour to have my poem Tha Watch Hoose Atap Tha Cliff Highly Commended in the Ulster-Scots category of the Frances Browne Poetry Competition.
The Frances Browne Festival is an annual celebration of the 3 tongues of the locality: Irish, English and Ulster-Scots. The Festival is enabling a welcome surfacing of ability and engagement in a very constructive spirit.
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 RUSSIAN INVASION OF UKRAINE: TWO PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN ON DAY 3, SEEN BY ME ON THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY
Photograph of a Russian soldier on the outskirts of Kharkhiv, February 26th 2022
Rotting inside his uniform — he would be but his final lover, the snow, has lain on him so intimately he is possessed entire; his face veiled; his right arm flung out on frozen linen in his last abandon.
His up-turned wrist, his naked palm — florid — mimic life but his fingers have scooped deep in a font of snow as though he’ll rise and bless himself, thumb a swift cross on our foreheads, eyes, lips, hearts, shudder, and stumble on.
He’ll not be rising. In the corner of the frame some pre-fab storage units hint that he died in the back lot of a retail park. Ochre and khaki, his stricken tank, behind him (he did not leap far) is motionless and only metal now.
I see the stillness, and the snow, a stalled assault, already a year ago. From all of this I can’t wring any meaning.
ENVOI: Second Photograph: Shifted Point of View
Further shamed: newly framed, he lies dead by a road. Slick tarmac army track; human sack slung off-road.
The first photograph spoke of human fragility, and callousness, and pointless enterprise. Yet there was a tenderness present in the gentleness of the snow. The second photograph showed harshly how close the body was to passing military vehicles — utterly disposable. I had been working on a response, in Ulster-Scots, to the the famous ninth-century Irish-language poem ‘Int én bec…’, known as ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’. This is in the ancient Irish metre ‘snámh súad’, which the late Ciaran Carson rendered as ‘poetic floating’. It is technically very challenging: eight three-syllable lines; a tight rhyme-scheme; the word that ends the fourth line must be re-presented as the last word of the eighth line, with shifted meaning. The form’s tautness reinforces its valedictory ‘punch’ and the poem-and-envoi form is appropriate to my ‘double-take’ on the original photograph.
Later I had something else to say about these photographs and their effect on me.
In winter, when I was very young, I’d find
the inside of my bedroom window slicked with ice, opaque’d.
I’d stand close up to scrutinise that alien terrain,
its glistening battlements and outposts,
not knowing that the tiny engine of my breath
was sapping it, until, with a sudden bloom,
the glass would clear and I’d be looking through
to the other side.
In the aftermath of snow the air is numb.
I’ve lived with these two photographs,
returning to re-see, reflect and, suddenly,
I’m looking at myself:
I, lying on the hard, wet ground;
I, framing, and shifting the vantage-point;
I, who shoot / am shot.
In the aftermath of snow the air is clear.
The photographer and I at once distinct
and consubstantial; the photographed
and I – yes, the same applies.
Then / now; there / here –
I have been, suddenly, let through.
Does this amount to meaning? I see
that nothing human is apart from me;
even the most discarded, most absurd.
In the aftermath of snow the air bristles, and breathes.
It was a pleasure to read at the launch of FREE VERSE an anthology of poetry to mark the tercentenary of the birth of Wales’s most influential philosopher and political theorist.
The launch took place at the Pontycymmer studio of artist, Kevin Sinnott whose work captures the vertiginous geography of the valleys. His studio window proudly proclaims his place in London, New Your and Pontycymmer. The local streets rise up from the narrow main road at the steepest of gradients and this sense of teetering on the edge of some precipitous fall or plunge gies a tremendous energy to his paintings. In this one below, a couple hover over valley streets.
Kevin Sinnott’s wonderful painting of Richard Price in the context of his times and those he influenced features as the anthology’s cover.
I chose to write about an incident in Richard Price’s life whose spontaneity shows how deeply rooted was his fellow-feeling for his contemporaries. He didn’t hesitate to risk his own interests to help a stranger. He as an intellectual who had his feet on the ground.
Here’s the background to this anthology, edited by Prof. Kevin Mills and Prof Damian Walford Davies:
“2023 marks the tercentenary of the birth of Dr Richard Price (1723−91), one of the most undervalued architects of the modern world. In political, philosophical and theological works he defined and advocated for many of the political and intellectual freedoms we take for granted. In our increasingly illiberal times, recovering his humane and enlightened work is an imperative.
“The poems included in this exploratory volume go some way towards engaging with that urgent task. In a rich variety of modes and styles, they both scrutinise and channel Price’s legacy − philosophical, political, theological, actuarial and moral − testing the contemporary relevance of his contribution just as they measure contemporary social and political mores against his example.
“Prompted by Price, we are encouraged to consider the value of human life; the worth of the individual; the lessons of history; the operations of power; the force of language; the nature of testimony; the implications of artificial intelligence; and the horizon of human possibility.
“Firmly rooted in Price’s intellectual legacy, these poems remind us that our cherished freedoms are fragile and must not be taken for granted. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792−1822) famously called poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’; the epithet applies equally to Richard Price, and here, for the first time, contemporary poets join their voices with his in seeking out, and giving memorable expression to, liberal values. The volume’s Introduction assesses Price’s impact and reputation in his own day, identifying him as a necessary voice in the work of agitating for an equitable and sustainable future in a warring and environmentally degraded world.”
Contributors: Abeer Ameer, Zoë Brigley, Phil Cope, Mari Ellis Dunning, Kristian Evans, Angela Graham, Rae Howells, Mab Jones, Richard Marggraf Turley, Kevin Mills, Robert Minhinnick, Taz Rahman, Gerry Ray, Tracey Rhys, Damian Walford Davies, Hilary Watson.
It explores and celebrates how holy wells have inspired poets for hundreds of years and includes a selection of old and new poems, in Welsh, English and Irish, including by Lewys Glyn Cothi, Gwynfardd Brycheiniog, Ieuan ap Rhydderch, Angela Graham, Tony Curtis, Grace O’Reilly, Eirwyn George, Dafydd Williams, Julian Cason, Lorraine O’Dwyer, Brian Jackson, Phil Carradice and Phil Cope. The Volume is illustrated by Phil Cope’s compelling photographs.
My poem considers the link between the culture of wells in both places and some aspects of what wells ‘do’ for us.
A WELL IN PEMBROKESHIRE, A WELL IN WEXFORD
This one is the pupil of an eye.
It exists to gaze at heaven.
Even the winter snows
kiss it and leave; no ice
forms here, for the pulse at its core
keeps its sight clear.
My face, hovering, it knows
will pass; all shadows do.
Only the sky endures.
And this one is a summery mirror
avid for something to reflect
− branches, birds, our gawping –
and it giggles, when anything touches it,
shiggling out a little overflow.
All on the surface? The reverse.
The negative of every image
is banked and catalogued in its vault.
These wells hear the sea that roils between them.
Like siblings in the dark, they reach
for one another’s hand
far below the boisterous tides
and spell on each other’s fingers
all they have seen and understood.
We think it is we who do
the looking. When the time approaches
for the world to blister, God
will command that everything be screened;
that the wells, erupting, stream
the banners of their spoils. We’ll see
ourselves, forever at the brink.
Holy Wells of Wexford and Pembrokeshire is a series of five chapbooks commissioned by Ancient Connections, an EU funded arts, heritage and tourism project linking north Pembrokeshire with north Wexford led by Pembrokeshire County Council with partners Wexford County Council, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority and Visit Wexford. The series coincides with the launch of a new pilgrim route; Wexford-Pembrokeshire Pilgrim Way between Ferns in County Wexford and St Davids in Pembrokeshire. The holy wells explored in this series through fiction, essays, photographs, poetry and prints are all on or close to the new pilgrim route.
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.
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.