Book of the Month May 2022
Life's Stink & Honey is Lynn Valentine's second collection. It is threaded with love and loss, and the luminous use of language. Crows flap through it and stags appear: harbingers and psychopomps.
There are two poems centred on the poet's father, tender descriptions of an everyday hero: "the man who would damp down blood, throw down sand, lift gristle up in both his hands"; but it is the mother who features most strongly, in a number of poignant, grieving poems. The mother-as-crow flies away, but leaves memories - "I see you shining flying bringing twig stone seaweed to the nest". In 'The Clootie Well' more crows watch mother and daughter attempt ancient magic. This is one of five Scots poems in the collection, which stand proudly and confidently alone - no glossary, no "translation". I read them aloud, the meaning accessible.
The other thread that runs through these poems is childlessness. 'Junk Drawer Day' is heart-breaking, looking clear-eyed at the pain of infertility and the grappling to create a life without children. "Snow wakes you to remind you that you don't have children, those out-of-date parsley seeds in the junk drawer will never germinate". In "Thi Lost Bairn" Lynn gives us a baby "girnin fir the mither wha couldna let hir see licht, couldnae lit hir be born". The grief is raw and palpable.
Arguably, the pivots of this collection are those losses - of mother and of motherhood. These losses bubble under the poems, rise to the surface, a part of life to be worked through, but always present. There is a deep understanding of loss and grief here.
Alongside this, there are moments of joy and beauty: a "nightdress trailing like angel wings", a horse has "firelit hooves", lochans are "an emerald necklace, fit for a lover". laundry day brings hands kissing. "shells are picked like strawberries". Those moments of beauty shine through the grief, as the grief shines through the beauty.
This is an intensely moving collection open to both the stink and the honey of life, and should be read with an open heart.
Review by: Sarah Connor
Sarah Connor is a retired psychiatrist, living in North Devon, surrounded by mud and apple trees. She has lived and worked in several countries, and plans to travel more once the pandemic ends. Her poetry has been published by Black Bough and Irisi, among others.
Easter Holiday Poetry Pick
'100 Poems to Save the Earth', ed. Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans, Seren Books, 2021.
In ‘100 Poems to Save the Earth’ (Seren Books, 2021), Welsh editors Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans have gathered in poems old and new in response to the earth being on the brink of “catastrophic [climate] change”.
There is an emphasis in this environmental poetry anthology on including work by “sideline[d]” groups of people – “BAME/BIPOC writers, LGBTQ+ poets, or writers with disabilities”. Across the work, poems range between micro – intensely personal or hyperlocal poems - to ones with a sweeping, macro, global vision, and it is this expansion and contraction in scale, and the diversity of its voices, that ensures continuing interest.
This collection is, in short, a page turner, with highlights for me being Roger Robinson’s ‘A Portable Paradise’, Pascale Petit’s ‘For a Coming Extinction’, Gwyneth Lewis’s ‘A Pagan Angel’ and Gillian Clarke’s ‘Cantre’r Gwaelod’. It’s good to see re-printing of previously published poems, such as Clarke’s, John McCullough’s ‘The Zigzag Path’ (a favourite) and Wendell Berry’s ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, adding gravitas and power to this ambitious collection.
It was impossible to find any poems that weren’t pulling their weight with careful selection evident throughout and it had me concluding that this is one of the strongest anthologies I have read in recent times, in contrast to some I've read which can, on occasion, carry weaker, less-resonant poems from poetry ‘names’ (yet this is always subjective!). There were some poems that didn’t necessarily directly engage with the overriding theme of the collection but served a different and complimentary purpose, to provide an energized perspective or vision of nature and this creates balance in the anthology, a necessary counter-weight to deep environmental pessimism/ anxiety.
The collection had me thinking more deeply and critically about marginalized groups and how they may have been excluded (in multifarious ways) from canonical nature (and what that 'canon' might look like) and environmental writing and how there are radically different perspectives on, and presentations of, the degradation of the environment and climate change across the world. This had me considering further, and in a more focused way, about poets in history with protected characteristics and from marginalized backgrounds (that I know of) and wondering on all those I’ve never heard of, or never will. I also thought of the prominent postcolonial writers that I’ve read from the past fifty years, or so, and their (often) immensely powerful engagement of nature but their relative absence from the school, college and university curriculum (from my experience, at least).
This is a highly-recommended anthology, that deserves a follow-up.
Dr Matthew M C Smith, April 2022.
Book of the Month:
Jude Marr's 'We Know Each Other By Our Wounds', Animal Heart Press, 2020.
It was tempting to start this review with some pithy statement on the ‘wounds’ that Jude Marr describes in this collection, to begin with an image of a wound deeply felt, healing, seen. And it’s true, ‘We Know Each Other by Our Wounds’ is in some ways a collection of poetry about what it is like to occupy a human body, an attempt to describe the pain of it and then also the way it can be a vehicle for defiance, against labelling, against the binaries which can sometimes seem compulsory, often oppressive.
There are poems which tilt towards this, like ‘Tattered Labels’, the poetic voice with echoes of Adrienne Rich, ‘not drowning, not drilling /down’ finding a voice of their own which eschews topographies, biologies and is able to say to their watching crowd ‘I am they, and not yet / dead.’ Similarly, poems like ‘Questions (Not) to Ask’ (the influence of Rich is here, Cixous, Irigaray,) are fraught and then celebratory in their deep ontological questioning – ‘if my passport / is printed on my skin, can I travel beyond self?’ Those poems, and many others, cut as deep as the skilled line breaks they use.
But as much as it is a body of poetry about wounds, it is more keenly, for me, a collection about communication and connection: the desperate desire we have to articulate, to create art, to dissemble and then to divulge. One of many stand-out poems was ‘Towards Delusions of Flight’ which imagines poet as bird ‘pinioned not winged’, ‘feather-roots grow[ing] through rock’, one day waking to see that the rock has eroded, using their plucked-feathers as quills, ‘loaded pen[s]’. As Marr says in ‘On Viewing a Spider Installation’, ‘art is all distortion’, but there is more than a touch of irony and sarcasm in this statement and I don’t for one minute think Marr believes that. I think they know the importance of poetry in order to survive, to be acknowledged. And in this way, they place themselves in a long line of poets crafting not because they want to but because they have to.
This is a hard-hitting, memorable collection.
Dr Emma Smith
Book of the Month:
The poems in Laura Wainwright’s Air and Armour (Green Bottle Press, 2021) reveal a Welsh writer deeply sensitive to the immediate environment – in these poems colours appear more vivid, there’s greater sensitivity to sound and the external environment takes on new shapes and forms.
Wainwright’s pared-down, hyper-realism transforms bees to “shattered atoms” with “murmurations of sun-caught-caught wings/ honeyed bonfire particles/ venting above the road.” Elsewhere, the writer invites us to a “simple stone house/ against a slope of heather/ a track down to a copse of rose-gold beech,/ a rattle, bell-clear stream”. Refined poetic descriptions is often undercut by unexpected juxtaposition – “Trees are lithographs in the hollowing light/ last week’s snow is peeling on the hills like old paint”, which mean that the poems never lapse into idealism or over-sentiment in their treatment of nature. At times, the language is electric - “the thrumming air/ powering the swifts”, and “I’ll take each bone to winter/ forked steel strikes the hardening year/ vibrations of migrating wings/ sonorous note of a hoar-frost star”. It’s difficult to believe this is only a first collection given the maturity and scope of the writing.
Emotional tension is palpable in these condensed, cut poems, with not one word too many, nor out of place. This is a collection where birds and insects take on greater animation and sound, dominating wastelands and spaces between or beyond the city. There are personal poems, too, about ancestry and roots, romance, childhood memories and the trauma of school bullying, where the poet conceals as much as reveals. There are nods to Welsh modernist writer Lynette Roberts and the abstract expressionist poet, Wallace Stevens, and these partial influences give this writer and her debut pamphlet, a real sophistication and authority.
If you also like the work of Robert Minhinnick and Jane Lovell, this highly recommended collection is definitely for you. Five stars!
Dr Matthew M. C. Smith
Book of the New Year
Three Winter Tales of Darkness and Light by Mary Earnshaw. Published by Cosi and Veyn. 2020
Mary Earnshaw's Three Winter Tales of Darkness and Light, published by Cosi & Veyn is a much-deserved 'Book of the New Year' (Book of the Month for December 2021 and January 2022). The Southport writer, who is shortlisted for the Bridport and Julian Lennon poetry prizes this year, published by Black Bough Poetry in several editions, a writer featured heavily by Broken Spine Arts, with work also in Present Tense, Spelt, Orbis and Dreamcatcher, has previously published a winter tale, A Little Match Girl, a re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen's famous story, published in 2018.
Three Winter Tales is a limited-edition, pamphlet-sized publication illustrated by distinguished illustrator Sian Bailey, who has worked for Random House, Scholastic Children's Books, Pan Macmillan and Oxford University Press, to name but a few.
The three stories take us back deep into the past to the frosty forests and snow-laden landscapes, firstly in 'A Time Before Time', which in style is slightly reminiscent of Alan Garner in its atmospheric yet measured style, although, arguably, there is something more poetic and crystalline about Earnshaw's turn of phrase.
"Tall trees vie with each other to snare pale light from the distant sun. Branches of oak and ash are leafless skeletons, black against frosty skies. But still there are needles and leaves and berries, trapping each struggling ray before it can reach the earth"
The tale is spellbinding in its descriptions of the woodland creatures and the forest folk as they assemble towards the winter gathering, with Earnshaw displaying a real mastery of poetic prose as the forest folk "harvest the gift of the skies. Catch lights to shine in the midwinter gloom" and "unfurl their woodbine ropes. Hang their silken ladders from lofty branches."
The stories progress to the medieval period, where 'King Edward's men' hunt in a dwindled forest that still holds from deep within it, the embattled forest folk; with its references to the faery folk, St Thomas's Day and Candlemas, pagan and Christian symbolism, there's an heightened sense of beauty in a book that is beautiful in its presentation of nature. We come to the present day in a final, wistful story.
This collection, with its stunning language and illustrations is a celebration of the greenwood and its associated myths and legends. Though the threat of environmental degradation looms, there is much-needed hope in this period of climate anxiety. This is an evocative collection that is ideal for older children and adults. If you like John Masefield's The Midnight Folk and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, Earnshaw's writing displays the same level of linguistic enrichment and symbolism. This deserves a wide readership beyond its limited edition copies and should be shared and taught at KS2 level (upper primary school).
Dr Matthew M. C. Smith