The quality of attention


The House of Straw, Carmen Bugan (76pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
Drowning in Cherryade,
Shanta Everington (16pp, $5, bedouinbooks.com)
I-spy and shanty,
Kate Noakes (84pp, €15, corrupt press)
Locust and Marlin
, J L Williams (80pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
Yellow & Blue,
Thomas A. Clark (96pp, £9.95, Carcanet)


Childhood memories. Is there anyone who doesn't write about them? The greater part of Carmen Bugan's House of Straw is built on recall  from her childhood, though since she was a child in Moldavia, there's an almost anthropological interest in her title poem, in 'Harvesting Beans', Making Wine', or 'Making the Hay Mattress':

     Then in a new white case we stuffed fresh hay;
     After she sealed it, she summoned us to dance
     The hora
on top to even out the surface

     Soften flowers, herbs and grass.

But this is also a quiet book of exile (she now lives in France), of 'barefoot prints: from / the table towards the opened door' ('A Memory') as well as being written in a second language and living uprooted from a house, traditions and culture, where

     Today it is twenty years since that evening at the airport 
     when in blinding snow people we had not seen
     were waiting for us. They said I kissed the ground.
     Did I kiss the ground? Who can remember this?
          ('Twenty Years')

The second section speaks from the new life, much of it in this country, where in 'Cotswolds, November' Carmen Bugan is looking out at the windy day of her arrival, a 'miniscule pond / of rainwater in the windowsill. / I like that, and stayed a few years there.' That surprise of moving from the minutiae of a moment to a consequence of a few years is typical of the way a sense of loss and estrangement is sustained throughout and finally underlined by revisiting the country she was born in, where

     The girl with unreadable eyes has returned
     Inside someone they cannot touch.
          ('The Latch')

Shanta Everington is from London, but her Drowning in Cherryade
is the 2014 annual chapbook from the U.S. Bedouin Books. Here, childhood (or rather teenagerhood in 'Shrine to Justin') is more lived than remembered: 'Jane said Merissa said Tanya had a photo from the party / with you in it.' The nine poems in this little chapbook are fast and visual, as in the mobile classroom where 'Looking and Laughing' takes place

     I heard the words 'flies on shit' and I could feel

     the stares from a boy who later I learned
     was called Darren. His hair was gold, the colour

     of the sun. I did not look at him but I could see
     him looking at me; him and a girl named Debbie,

     who later married a man like me…

However her reader's eye can be taken off the ball more than once when her pronouns slide around: who is this 'he'? which 'you' is she referring to? - some of which come clearer after three or four readings, but some of which leave you with the sense that she's writing from a private space.


Kate Noakes 'lives mainly in Paris', but she's from Wales, with a publisher based in Luxembourg (registered office in Edinburgh),  so not surprising I-spy and shanty is a diverse collection. The book opens with several poems attending to a small token, such as a pebble placed on a grave. In 'Breathing water now', it's a childhood token:

     My Start-rite feet are heavy on the worn
     boards of the wharf, and from somewhere,

     a dried seahorse is pressed into my palm:
     a fallen leaf caught in a net.

'Armistice' is a simple and effective poem in which Kate Noakes's grandfather throws into the river his medals, which she searches for in her own way.

Later sections widen into poems which arise from works of art and other non-personal objects, including a group 'Women's chronicle', based on objects in Reading Museum, such a lead deed box, with its strange contents, which the poem's speaker placed 'under the floorboards / to perplex thieves and future generations.' There's a period piece abut a family heirloom, 'Blitz wedding dress and on the facing pace, 'Flying Visit—Spring 1944' nicely dates the scene with another object:

     Aunt May pounds the dolly in the yard,
     twists and churns the clothes and suds

     not noticing

                         …him, great-coated
     blocking out the sun, kit bag shouldered

     moustachioed, grinning. And now
     the kissing away of two long winters. Him here.

This is a book in which the publisher uses en dashes where you'd expect hyphens, em dashes where you'd expect en. Does it matter? You probably get used to it, but it has a strange effect on your reading if you're not,  because you pause at an en dash, rather hurrying along as you would at a hyphen. And there are a fair few, as Kate Noakes is fond of hyphens: 'this look: a mid-distance glaze, jet-soft, in mote-light' (Cairo 2011) and they draw attention to themselves.

J L Williams was born in New Jersey, studied in Massachusetts and Glasgow, and works in Edinburgh. Locust and Marlin
is a book of water, shells (riffing on a phrase of Bachelard's), a few birds and stones - but principally stones, although from the full-on list in 'Stone Song' which opens

     My strange stone.
     My dying stone.
     My clinging stone.
     My sugared stone.
     My embarrassed stone.

to 'so much in each stone' in 'Corpus', she's not exactly writing of stones, but of self:

     When I was a stone, my heart was a stone.
     My foot was a foot-shaped stone.
          ('Body of Stone')

Many poems therefore step a layer or two back from the blurb's description of the book: 'Where is the origin, our point in space from which we view the world?... how do we find our way home?' - and if they did not, we'd be verging on the ecstatic here. However, not all poems approach their central subjects indirectly like this. The title poem looks back to her 'father's old bait and tackle shop', and old newspaper photographs taken

     …before these same brave fishers
     were diagnosed one by one with disease
     or crippling forgetfulness or pains
     brought on by the drag of time's bright lure.

Some poems are simpler, like 'Hotel', and J Williams includes a dash of humour too and all neatly enclosed by two spare poems about a heron.


Open Yellow and Blue on any page, and you know you're in Thomas A. Clark territory:  surrounding white space focuses your thinking on a small central block of text,  making your own act of reading parallel the writer's 'small acts of attention' as the cover blurb calls them. On the whole there are two such (related) acts on each a page, occasionally three. At random, then:

     rain is falling
     there and here
     on an earth
     or ground
     repeatedly affirmed
     as if it were
     unbelievable


     too impetuous to be
     anywhere
     the burn rushes through
     the sounds
     it throws
     in the air

(There's a much bigger white space between these two units of text on the actual page.) This is the outward-looking gesture of attentiveness towards the natural world familiar to us in Thomas A. Clark's existing oeuvre, but Yellow and Blue
also treads new ground. 

Firstly, it's a book-length poem - as was The Hundred Thousand Places
- but the bulk of Thomas A. Clark's work is shorter, sometimes very short. It's a different reading experience. I find I can't hold the whole of Yellow and Blue in my mind as I read: I'm aware of it's shifts and its changing moods, and yet I can't place my reading on a map of the whole thing. I've returned to it several times, and each time it sounds fresh, each time I'm carried along not expecting what happens over the page.

The poem flows through a landscape that's not named, unlike (for example) 'At Loch Grinneabhat' or 'Creag Liath'. I can't locate the 'gear and tackle' that 'grapple with lengths / of felled pine', though the names of four hills in

     ...
     bulabhal chaipabhal
     bolabhal bleabhal
     are resting bells
     then a wind blows
     bulabhal chaipabhal
     bolabhal bleabhal
     through the syllables

place the poem in South Harris - as does much else: sand dunes, gneiss, wildflowers, lochans and 'roots of silverweed / leaves of nettles / fear of eviction'. What is striking in Yellow and Blue
is that the landscape is populated, both historically - that 'fear of eviction' - and contemporaneously in a community where 'the crofter a weaver / the postman a baker' and so on:

     the news is news
     at the bus stop
     in the rain
     it is always the same
     distant wars
     the cleared land
     forgotten

The present landscape visibly contains it's past use in (for example) a broken lintel or 'a fortuitous arrangement / of broken stones' but history is woven right through the poem, as you realise the more you read it - not just explicitly in sections about crofting, milking, carrying water, waulking tweed, and contemplating clearances, but also in smaller references: 'a basket left / among the grasses / is soon claimed / by the grasses'. I'm interested that here Thomas A. Clark is able to turn that same quality of selfless attention he has long brought to the natural world towards humankind, 'big red men / striding in an innocence / regained.'

    © Jane Routh 2015