Available Light, Estill Pollock [78pp, £7.99, Cinnamon Press]
Salt-Sweat & Tears, Louisa Adjoa Parker [77pp,
£7.99, Cinnamon Press]
Morocco Rococo, Jane McKie [60pp, £7.99, Cinnamon Press]
Circus-Apprentice, Katherine Gallagher [101pp, £8.99,
I could tell, about three poems into Estill Pollock's
collection, that there was going to be two ways of looking at the task ahead
- either the other three books I'd received were going to have difficulty
living up to the standard of the first, or, more hopefully, I'd been sent
four brilliant books to review and this was only the first taste of more to
Mind you, it didn't stop there. By about five poems in I was becoming more
and more overawed by the quality of this work, to the point that I'm sure I
remember myself muttering something into my cup about it being the kind of
poetry that makes me want to give up writing - however, that would be to
admit having wasted the past twenty-five years in the pursuit of personal literary
accomplishment - I was forced to retract my mutterings for fear of the truth.
I suppose the point I'm trying to make by all this preamble is that, if
you're the kind of saddo who's only going to buy one poetry book this year, Available
Light should be it.
Not only is Pollock's craftsmanship and diction stunning, but these poems
simply ooze with an authoritative confidence that encompasses place, history,
the moment and narrative drama with such apparent ease as to draw you in to
wallow in the richness of detailed imaginings and realities. Content ranges
from Chernobyl to Hiroshima, from war-zones to meetings with the good and
great of classic literature, from South American conquest to North American
upbringing - and all within the space of some sixty-six pages.
Often, there's a raw intensity that serves to mirror a writer who actually
cares about his subject matter - the empathy is tangible and contagious. For
example, Pollock, in 'Ground Zero', talks of
down the jut of jawbone, the drip of fingertips
silver distance, a city sighted,
the bridge and river made
vapour where they stood, the thin
their humanity across ransacked stars.
This raw intensity is brought to its climax towards the end of the collection
with 'Resurrection Suite', which is described as a “version rather than
translation” of the poems in Burden by Lyubov Sirota
published in Kiev in the late eighties. She saw and suffered, first hand, the
immediate and long term effects of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, having
witnessed the explosion from the open window of her house in Pripyat, about
1.5 km from the scene. 'Resurrection Suite' takes us through the chronology
of the generalised negligence and procedural indifference surrounding the
initial meltdown to the organisational incompetence and technical ignorance
of the emergency response, then on to the official denials and unscrupulous
whitewashing in its aftermath, alternating between highly technical detail
and the bitter voice of human tragedy.
inventory of deaths, our names
and the grief of mourners
is saved for
never laid, the music never played...
itself in chromosomes
in the party line, its sly dismissal of our lives
bureaucrats on long lunches
because of us they weighed
advantages, trading us in kind.
Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. There are lighter moments. Yet,
throughout the book, Pollock consistently maintains a level of quality that
is both intelligent and absorbing. If poetry is about making every word
count, then Available Light has to be one of
the best examples in recent years.
If, on the other hand, poetry is more about emotions and
personal experience, then Louisa Adjoa Parker's collection Salt-sweat
& Tears fits the bill admirably. Where Pollock's poems were
worldly, Parker's are domestic. Where Pollock's rested on empathy, Parker's
are laced with venom. Given her life experiences, she is justifiably bitter
and doesn't hold back in exorcising a paternally violent, unstable, insecure
and abandoned childhood, followed by a similar adulthood in her own
relationships with men and, almost inevitably, the beginnings of a
continuation for her own daughter - a kind of recurring nightmare that
sociologists and anthropologists would so easily put down to cultural
practices, but which goes much deeper, being, in essence, something of a
psychological phenomenon - a classic case of self-fulfilling prophesy.
Parker repeatedly speaks of the violence of her father. In 'English Rose'
her eyes with
bruises like plums
would try to hide
eye-shadow the colour
Or, in 'Memories Like Muddied Stones'
poker my father held
mother's head while we stood and watched, frozen
But it's not this overt violence that Parker uses to generate pathos. Rather,
it's the overall sense of fear she grew up with, even after her parents'
separation, even from her mother...
just like your black
Bastard of a
Dad, she'd say.
'Just Like Your Father']
She snaps at
us this morning,
waiting to bite...
She looks at
spits out the
you'd Never Been Born.
'Pieces of Reality']
to get us
somehow to hurt us,
through the glass door
like a hippo
falling through ice...
Falling Through Ice']
was becoming someone
want me to become,
call me a
And then, being of mixed parentage, Parker raises the whole issue of racism -
whether encountered during childhood or in adulthood - this, itself, subtly
adding to her sense of apprehension towards the world.
The kids in
our street would call us
dung-heap of names -
Nigger, Blackie, Wog and Coon
But the kids
in our street still played
with us blackies,
with our hair
like frightened sheep,
who were just
beginning to learn
impolite to have been born...
[from 'In Our
confused when they'd tell me
to go back to
Exploring her own first-hand experience of racism further in adulthood, she
imagines herself as an African servant girl brought to England two centuries
earlier, treated well, but trapped:
magpie they keep in the garden
wire must feel,
black and white wings against the cage,
was born for this;
dusting and cleaning white people's rooms...
'Sometimes When I'm Making Beds']
Of course, this notion of being trapped may also be a reflection of female
sensitivities, as appear elsewhere in the collection, but it is the race card
that is more often played. Yet, rather valiantly, despite the years of racist
abuse, she is still able to hold her head up and envisage the possibilities.
In 'Mulatto Girl' she manages to express a sense of pride and find hope in
her African bloodline:
twentieth century people brave enough
to cross a
line made of different tones of skin,
to love in
spite of hate.
Finally, and quite appropriately, amidst the wealth of family, race,
generational and gender politics, food politics is slipped deftly into the
mix with the particularly well observed 'When Less Is More and More Is Less'.
This piece explores the extremes of the British female figure, from the women
who 'wear their thinness with pride' to those who are 'the size of buses' and
the choices that are available to each. The fact that we in the developed
world have these choices is seized upon with a final rebuke, noting that 'the
rest of the world watches, choice-less, / and starves.'
So far, so good. Two out of two.
But then, in being ambushed, it all goes pear-shaped with Morocco Rococo. The standard slips. Plummets. Forty-six poems that simply fail to
engage me at all. Christ! Nothing? I begin to wonder
if it's just me, or if one reading wasn't enough. I try again and, no,
nothing. And again. Nup. Still nothing.
Then I begin to wonder if it has something to do with the abundance of
foreign words and place names. But, then, I don't usually have a problem with
them. Indeed, I have spent the best part of a lifetime developing an
appreciation of the extra dimension they can add, if used effectively and
purposefully. With this collection, however, I feel their failure maybe has
more to do with the way they're dropped in, decoratively peppering an
otherwise seemingly empty text with ostentatious superficiality in the hope
that the reader will be impressed by such knowledgeable sophistication - but, the reality is that they serve
no obvious purpose other than, like so many crass holiday snaps with tourists
standing in front of landmarks, to show that she's been there. Maybe, in my
own ingrained, inbred, presbyterian way, I'm denying myself engagement
because of the sinfulness of this display of arrogance? Maybe not.
So, perhaps some footnotes or a glossary might have helped, but I think
not. These exoticisms basically
don't bring anything to the text in terms of deeper understanding or even
emotional flavour. And, I could, at this stage, of course, quote from the
many lines thus peppered, but it wouldn't provide anything close to a
usefully representative illustration of the overall effect. So, I shan't.
Yet, assuming this to be a wholly minor rankle, I am still left wondering why
these poems have altogether failed to engage. There's something special about
this one. Even the books in the past that have disappointed on a literary
level have riled me or, at least, showed signs of being able to provoke some
similar kind of negative emotion. With these, there's just a feeling of
They're neither good nor bad - they just exist. They're neither evocative nor
provocative - they just pass.
Perhaps, there's even something of Blairite Britain in them - the tick-box
society - read them, tick them off as having been read, then shelve and
forget them without having done so having really made any kind of difference
Though really, in a nutshell, the problem lies in the fact that it's just too
easy to skim unthinkingly through this collection - there's nothing to
challenge or excite - nothing to engage the reader - too much to leave the
brief, passing thought, 'right, well, that's that, but, so what?' In all
honesty, I can think of many much better ways of idling away some time.
But, let's see if this batch of books can lift itself from the mediocrity of
a potential fifty percent success rate to greater heights. Let's see if the
last of this quartet can live up to, or even surpass, the standard set by the
first. Oh, God, I hope so!
Prayers answered... Katherine Gallagher's Circus-Apprentice quietly restores my faith. Strangely enough, though, this collection
bears similarities to Morocco Rococo, in that it
has been written by a woman who has travelled. But that's where it ends.
Rather than a series of holiday snaps, we get worldly-wisdom, real life
experience, a sense of her having lived, of having absorbed and having been
absorbed, of a fish out of water, of longing for, as she identifies in
'Yellow, Red, Blue (1925)', 'this country you keep coming back to, / that
walks you home to yourself.'
There are constant reminders, some obvious, some subtle, of Gallagher's
Australian roots that serve to provide a perspective to her observations that
engages from the first line to the last, but without drowning in
sentimentality. These are not poems about Australia. Indeed, they aren't
poems about anywhere. They are poems about herself and her past in relation
to her present, wherever that present may be.
swallowed a country,
quietly inside me.
Days go by
when I scarcely
realise it is
It is my
multiplied my skies.
I search her
face across a hemisphere,
embark on one
'Thinking of my Mother on the Anniversary of her Death']
to be on to
Matilda - easy,
like our next
Bluebells of Scotland.
seen bluebells then,
not known how
they grow helter-
skelter, how they hold April
waiting to unfurl.
And, yes, there are foreign words and place names - there are bound to be
with someone who has lived a life of exile - but, they blend, they add, they
complement - there is no attempt to use them to impress, perhaps, again,
because these are personal poems rather than poems of place written to
justify public funding.
on the Loddon, with its long Aboriginal name:
the strange sound of it, not knowing what it meant.
Lanes and the New River's
Victorian railway cottages
fronting Umfreville Road,
between the past
and present's waiting shell,
rectangular patch of woodland
- Railway Fields, broken by grassland
foxes frisk in the evenings...
fifteen trees here
with just the Sahara's dry promises in your eye.
'From the Sahel']
names, public faces:
Hourtous, Roc du Serre, Roque Sourde,
Sublime, alongside the unnamed ones -
like a row of
winners, guiding us,
this unsaddled world,
Tarn and the teasing signs
to its source
at Mont LozŹre.
Gorges du Tarn']
But, more often than not, the exoticisms are consciously left understated, or
not stated at all. Other, more subtle pointers are skilfully used to mark the
map. We are simply left to dwell
on the thought rather than the place.
One final point worth mentioning is that, throughout, there is evidence of
Gallagher having what can only be described as a painterly eye. There is a
very definite appreciation in her observations of the aesthetic, of form,
colour, texture, space, character - she is very much a creator of imagery, of
impression. And this she turns around with poems written from paintings by
Magritte and Vuillard, leading towards the final section in the collection,
which concentrates on the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, appropriately
prefaced with the quote, 'When you arrive at a state of shock, the paradox of
colour will balance you.'
Let the eye
and all the
arrows focus gravity.
spectrum - cerulean,
extremes, prime colours that reach back
- crayons and paints that you flew everywhere,
colouring inside the lines, sometimes splashing
on a blank
slate, allowing sun to be orange, black or green;
waves to be
carmine, tipped with blue.
If I was to sum up, I couldn't be more concise nor closer to the truth than
Lidia Vianu of Bucharest University, for whom, 'Gallagher's poetry
appropriates words and makes them the colours and movements of a metaphysical
world.' As I said, my faith has been restored.
© John Mingay 2007