Liz Cashdan with The
Same Country is a poet who will
appeal to lovers of art in all its forms. She has a wide remit that includes
painting, tapestry, pottery, needlework and architecture. Along with
exploring the works of art she also enters the mind of the artist with
tremendous empathy. The most successful of the poems are those that connect
art with history, in particular when we see individual lives interwoven with
the particular work of art. This is how - since her subject matter is often
very specialised - she manages to universalise what might otherwise be of
interest to a narrow audience. Finally, we see repeatedly in these poems how
she provides a glorious explosion of the senses - sight and touch in
Take the poem 'Red', a poem based on a textile by Michika Oka. Here she
excels at showing the life that triggered the craft, as she says: 'I am
looking for the story in your red tangle of threads'. The poem gives us
exactly that as we are shown the texture of life and art sensuously
Now she is
deep embroidering her wedding dress, poppies
sewn on to
red silk, and the threads shake out their flames.
long months of waiting for the boat until one day
autumn trees are set alight, he will come, salt lips,
coloured iron-rust, fish scales silvering his shirt.
One is struck here by the way we see a patterning of colour reflected both in
life and art. We see something similar in 'Hannah Barraclough's Marriage Quilt 1821':
coloured, cut-out octagons, joined
by the broad
bands of dark blue, covering
Elsewhere she enters the minds of characters in certain paintings, such as in
'Resurrection' and here in 'Mary Elwell Paintings' an attempt to interpret
the mother child relationship in the picture:
She's got her
feet propped up on the footstool
as if to say
this is my sofa, don't disturb please.
I do like how
she's got her hair pulled back
and the way
her stripy jacket matches the stripes
cushion. Suppose it's a good painting.
I wonder what
would happen if I shouted really loud.
'Playing Fields' shows us the importance history has for her as we see her
contrasting the younger self as school student for whom 'History can wait'
and the adult observer in Prague where history is overwhelming:
six girls dance in a green field, they hold
a pale sun
sheds no light. The catalogue details
born 1933, brought to Terezin 1942,
to Auschwitz October 1944
As one works through the poems the overriding feeling in this collection is
an all-consuming passion for art and the process of art. In the 'At the Nahum
Gutman Art Gallery' she has a gutsy way of showing the creative power of this
My son grew
up among these canvases,
clenched fist of my painting
gather in the
people, gather in flowers, fruits
orchards of Israel.
And note how her language brings out the physicality of his art as she goes
on to describe how the tourists visiting his house in Tel Aviv: 'set their
teeth into my red pomegranates, / bathe in the dark water of my orange grove
pond. Similarly in 'Lustre: William de Morgan Tile-maker and Novelist', we
see the sheer joy in creating reinforced describing the minutiae of the
objects on the pottery:
I love the
surprise of glaze -
to be struck
fresh from the kiln by the stare
the petting rabbits, hippos
tears, the eyes of astonished
flattened on the tiles, necks stretched
alive in the colours of lustre:
wild over blue deeps,
fish-fin cut the waves,
the tangle to things that count,
counting of numbers , but the counting of
shape and the
story of shape.
This passion goes so far as to make you feel she cannot separate observation
of the natural world from the her love of art: when it comes to landscape she
manages to achieve art in reverse, such as in 'Branch Hill Pond Hampstead
pink with grey
rain angled from scumbled clouds,
come down with wide brush strokes.
This is poetry that enables the reader to enter the feeling of the artist
even if one has no particular interest in the visual arts:
To sustain the theme of
parental death through an entire collection is no easy task but Cathy
Grindrod in Still Breathing
has been largely successful in doing just that. She offers us sharply
observed poems that manage to steer clear of sentimentality for the most
part. The book divides into three sections: the lead up to her father's
death; immediate reactions to his death and funeral, and finally a section
that combines a retrospective on her father's life and her own experience of
adjusting to the loss.
In the first section we see in 'Beginning Again' how she describes her
father's decline with precise intimate detail: 'putting on the woollen glove/
unable to separate the fingers' and in the sequence 'Holding On' expresses moving
resignation at his approaching death, as she starts on her personal journey
of how she would like to remember him:
Dad, go now,
this clear white day.
A cairn to
add a pebble to,
Clean wind to
whip your breath away.
These lines offer a tightly focused memory along with an affirmative sense of
his return to the elements.
As we move into the second section one finds her attempt at a villanelle with
'Flowers for his Coffin' less successful:
A garden for
his coffin proudly grown
A posy worked
for him with care and skill
They ask me
why I cry. I do not know.
This poem fails both because of the bland repeating line: 'They ask me why I
cry I do not know' (and surely she does know why) along with the clichˇd
phrases: 'proudly grown' and 'care and skill'. She is on much safer ground
when she just describes things how they are. Take the opening immediacy of
'Time to Go ' with the recognisable emotional impact of encountering soil at
the graveyard, particularly harrowing in rain:
to the soles of shoes,
Later it will
walk itself inside the house.
And there is also the rather wonderful 'Life goes On' with the child as
metaphor for life's presence in the midst of death:
Life Goes On
black, keeping death
length, they make small talk,
A ponytail is
group to group,
through a narrow gap
armchair and the dresser.
There a small
hand reaches out.
with cream meringue.
A third time.
Sometimes less can be more and Grindrod would have been wise to omit the poem
'Howler' which immediately follows it, for it reinforces the same point less
effectively taking a little from the preceding poem.
The final section opens with a sharp, visually effective opener to what will
be an attempt at telling his story:
But now at
night, I picture his grave,
the wet black trees,
and he is
Snow White in glass.
This is his
In this sequence Grindrod does not fight shy of dealing with the obvious but
unattractive fact that death by burial involves those left behind having to
engage with the emotional impact of the body beneath the soil along with the
practicalities of subsidence and the like, and she makes this an ongoing
motif in the poems. In 'Rain' for example there is the suggestion of rain
somehow forcing him back to her: 'pushing you for ever closer/to this raw raw
loneliness of living.' Finally the most intriguing poem in the whole
collection is 'This is the Woman' because it puts a number of questions in
the reader's mind as to who the woman is. The suggestion is someone other
than a wife but nothing is spelt out. In places it could have been cut back a
bit but nevertheless it draws us in with its suggestions of the illicit in
the story of a man who up to this point has sounded fairly conventional
have asked those things
tells you, teaches you.
have watched them take him,
they are, those secret things they do.
You don't want to know.
She does, she does.
All in all Grindrod has been successfully in providing a sustained meditation
on the nature of her loss.
These two collections taken together make plain that Five Leaves know what
they are about. Though a small concern they are clearly providing poetry
pamphlets that contain well edited quality poetry. If one believes there is a
pecking order between the pamphlet and the full collection then this is a
small press that proves without doubt that there shouldn't be.
© Belinda Cooke