Dazzleship, Isabel Galleymore (34pp, £7.00, Worple Press)
The Told World, Angela Gardner (83pp, £8.95, Shearsman )
What the Ground Holds, Rosie Jackson (40pp, £5.00, Poetry Salzburg)
Ground Signs, Isabel Palmer (34pp, £4.50, Flarestack)
My review copy
of Isabel Galleymore's Dazzleship was pinched, I
raved about it so much. What's better than opening a page at random and
feeling the earth jump? Here's what did it, 'Girl and Father':
This girl sitting on her father's shoulders
is and is not her father:
they are one small giant
with four arms two stacked heads,
they are simply two different people
Two different people,
but one is carrying another -
one carries the form of the eyes,
the contempt for pineapple
and the walk that prioritizes toe over
years after they disassemble.
Galleymore's collection is seismic; surreal, daring assertions of simbiosis
and cause and effects. It shakes off any trace of the banal; bold ideas hide
in the odd interplay of delicate natural images. The thought and
writing is too sophisticated to doubt, and you can't see how its done; it's
unique. As each poem's exquisite logic slowly unravels, the strange and
subtle connectedness of all living things becomes indisputable. It excites me
but I've been caught like this before so tested it out with multiple
readings, and it didn't fall apart. It wasn't a trick of artifice, or a conceit,
and I wanted to leave everything behind and move into this perception where
all is one. I like a poem to shift you somewhere better. So it's exciting,
and I'm struggling here and there, but surprised, delighted and confronted.
Do tiny actions really have momentous outcomes across time and space? Are
animals and humans working together even when they don't know it? Is it
impossible for us to ever extricate ourselves from each other? You
can't land on the same spot after reading Galleymore's interpretations of
Gardner's The Told World I heard an underlying whisper
which was sometimes curious and sometimes querulous, 'What will happen to
us?' I sense more fear here than in her early collections, Parts of
Speech (2007) and View of the Hudson
(2009). I think it's because the concrete is now definitely disappearing;
things and sensations merge and blur, the lack of continuity becomes ominous,
and I long for colour and distinctions. And yet, and yet, it's so alive! Just
as the poems are kept fluid by the birds flying in and out and the come and
go of rain, and more rain, this scape is in perpetual and rhythmic motion,
foreground and background intercepting to and fro - not pulsed by dying and
rebirth, but pulsating beyond mortal limit. We are far out and the ground is
- gone! But then we experience afresh.
Take these lines from 'Landscape with Birdsong':
In the moments that we believe
before theatre begins
some truth is hammering in the cavity of the
So needy we hardly recognise our own
in the birdsong.
Lots of flips of subject here, but sensitivity is put above behavior, to
balance our worldly numb. Then it's daunting again, for example,
Compare with just, with wing:
the unravel, the very place
the door you lean against
in the usual hardwearing.
Lines 2 and 4 recur in the next stanza but I'm none the wiser. Hardwearing as
a noun? It is hard to extract lines. They go dull and lose themselves out of
the whole. You have to work with it all, and not separate the bits you don't
get. Nothing actually stands alone. Maybe that's the point, and that's where
this collection meets the proposal in Dazzle Ship, and
the faith in What the Ground Holds.
It's big stuff and miraculously saved from seriousness or density by
Gardner's enjoyment of invention as in 'We are Called', 'the unwieldy zorse,
the liger and wholphin' and the humour of the final section, 'Solo Estoy
Mirando'. The wide sweep of knowledge and interest and the light, spacious
composition ensure it's never oppressive, even when you're stuck. I found it
useful to take breaks and come back to it, and over time the atmosphere
became the most important thing, the climate in which to let myself not know.
The scope and scale of these poems and their varied penetrability make uneven
demands on the reader. This is no bad thing in itself, but the six segments
feel like unrelated projects and I'm not sure how well they fit
Gardner's unfixed picture can seem too intangible and scary, but she also
reminds us how things can work simultaneously in the small material and large
metaphysical, as in 'Beyond the Footlights':
Dream a darkness beyond the footlights
and even if you cannot stand
to read our eyes for applause or censure
at least we are here
Phew. Maybe it was me who was whispering.
Ground Holds reports back, in different moods, colours and
states of hope, from the underworld. 'Persephone' calls it the 'long
labyrinth of winter' - an uninviting message of hard and cold. Our interest
is arrested by an unexpected warmth in the writing that keeps you close and
in your body while the unreliable mind's journey unfolds.
The collection opens with, 'I can't tell you...' , a funny and clever behind
hand conspiratorial gesture that hits the familiar and the ironic, bonding
writer and reader in one stroke with objective distance. It's wittily poised
to include the other, and rouse enthusiasm for uneasy talk. It's significant
that the reader/writer relationship is so deftly worked for at the start in
this way and continuously valued, given the narrative crisis. It might be all
there is. Lostness, stuckness and chaos are all told and apparent, but the
driving poetic impulse is so much bigger than that, and reaches for more;
archetypal clues, art, other women's lives and deaths - all these inspire
urgent curiosity and investigation to make some saving sense and contact.
You can feel the underlying desperation to find things, anything that makes
it worth staying alive. That the private, alienating hell is made bearable
through cultural connection is the collection's most important
declaration. This is a well demonstrated statement about the value of
art and literature as human medicine. Persephone's 'terror of being down
there' is depersonalised by the discipline of looking outward, further than
the self, for clues, understanding, help. Help! And a lot becomes available,
through the humbling search, in the form of information re-experienced by the
healing poetic imagination. A flying duck on a wall in 'Recovery Stroke'
leads to this:
knowing before being told
that moving forward
requires a moving back,
that no stroke is wasted
that the greatest beauty sometimes
happens at the weakest point.
Exquisite. The soft control is typical, calming, and makes possible an
awakening trust in tenderness.
published, this is Isabel Palmer's first pamphlet and I am already queuing up
for the next. The context is informative and worth passing on. These poems
were written as a Monday ritual; one a week to her son while he was on foot
patrol in Afghanistan searching for Improvised Explosive Devices. They live
together apart, in fear and stealth, mother and son, as if they were each
other's lifeline. The terror is often unbearable, the danger palpable.
Palmer's less obvious task is creeping up on the insidious ways in which war
is normalised and glorified, and then disarming them. Here she is in 'Signs':
So when you see
that squaddie, who lost his legs,
whose fingers, on his rifle hand, clung
to his elbow like scorched fruit
on his way to Medals Parade,
his laughter rattling like old bones,
you have to look away.
This is an easy, open one but Palmer also tackles the more private, subtle
shifts of distance that war puts between people as in 'Whatever':
The memory is there
of a journey to another time
from which you and I returned changed,
our lives spelt differently
one letter at a time.....
and our conversations are all about
whatever doesn't matter anymore.
So the killing will happen somewhere, even when bombs are disarmed and poems
written, there's the unspoken collateral which Palmer gives voice to.
The tension of this collection forces re-reading and re-examination of all
our responses to war and those pulled into it. This is a mother who can do
nothing for her endangered son but keep track, alongside him, trying to
understand the terrain, questioning each clue, test every meaning, and stay
as close as the given work demands.