Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

"100 poems to see you through" by Daisy Goodwin (ed) (Ebury Press, 2019)

An anthology providing emotional support with poems by Wendy Cope (6), Julia Darling (4), U.A. Fanthorpe (3), D.H. Lawrence (3), Jo Shapcott (3), etc. There's an "Index of emotions".

I liked "Out-patients" (Satyamurti), "After visiting hours" (UA Fanthorpe), "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" (Dinkinson), "Brief reflection on the word pain" (Holub), "The unprofessionals" (UA Fanthorpe), "Damaged" (Donald Adamson), "Do not do gentle into that good night" (Dylan Thomas).

I was surprised to read in one of the section introductions that "Novelists can use their imagination, but poets have to write from the heart" (p.42).

Saturday, 12 October 2019

"Weemoed" by Tim Dooley (Eyewear, 2017)

Poems from Ambit, High Window, Poetry London, Shearsman, etc. 85 big pages.

I think I understand most of the poems at one level, but I feel I miss the point of them. Maybe he's a poet's poet, too delicate and subtle for me. I like phrases such as "Because in every crowd I would search for my parents' faces, I've come where clouds cover the ragged peaks" (p.9) though to my mind he fails to capitalise on that promising start. Several other poems leave me with the same impression.

There's a handful of sequences.

  • "At the coast" is in 20 sections spread across 10 pages - factual, impressionistic, nostalgic; Sisley vs photographs; Abstract vs concrete. No revolutionary insights - it's the usual seaside musing and observation; there's even Punch and Judy. Here's the start, the end and some bits in between - "What we can see and name is subject to change. Land and water have become as malleable as sky ... Detail gradually gives way to form alone ... This monochrome photo must be from the 1950s ... To the left, the corner of a striped awning explains the intent gaze of the young crowd facing it ... You can read abstraction in the faces: pity, fascination, fear ... teenagers sip from cans above caves I crawled through as a child. A few feet from the waves, my father puts spin on a tennis ball, playing cricket with my sons. I'm watching from a deckchair inside a memory, knowing how soon this day will end ... we watch evening perform its usual alchemy, shifting each minute ... The boy turns to the sea, hearing the music of everything that has happened before ... a lighthouse painted in bands of red and white like a child's toy, or a barber's pole ... Sixteen hundred tons of sand and gravel were removed each day. The level of the beach fell by about twelve foot. The absence of a single powerful landowner may have meant that opposition to the dredging and claims for compensation were relatively weak. Twenty years of this, high tides and an Easterly gale combined to destroy the village ... As children, we scrambled up rocks hunting the rare advantage of height. Now we walk towards the afternoon sun letting land and sea reveal themselves: a mystery plotted with shade and light."
  • I liked section xi best of the Weemoed sequence.
  • Part ii seemed especially bland in the "Jutland" sequence.
  • "According to John" is a puzzle - I can see that John's a bit of a character, I can see the biblical allusions, but why 5 pages of it?
  • "Recent events in Logres" is different in tone, with fable and myth - charming in parts. 12 pages though - 20 sections.
  • "12x12" is 12 sections each of 12 short lines - a form that has to be filled whether not there's good enough content.

It's as if sequences are being used as a "safety in numbers" device to give weak passages protection.

"Little poem" is exactly what the title claims. In "It was a circus" someone describes his marriage as a circus. Hearing this, the persona thinks of spangled diamanté and sword-swallowers, then wonders if the other person's thinking more of clowns trying to "make small children cry". The end. "The difficulty of sight" in contrast was none too straightforward. "Twilight at four" has a passage I like - "from how the higher branches slide behind each other trailing down the sullen sky, he tells the fortune of the forest - as if lines on an opened palm.// She rehearses lines she hoped to improvise, sitting under trees, on a park bench against the city sky" - though "palm" is an unfortunate pun. I like "A true story" - gulls and local politics.

Poems like "Taking down the statue" puzzle me. It's a mini-essay/article in short lines making obvious-enough points about a piece of modern art. 2 pages! "Henry Harclay's Ordinary Questions" has even shorter lines. Here's a stanza without the 11(!) line-breaks - "Harclay who had studied with Scotus in Paris noted that Tartars Magyars and Mongols had worked their way through that passage for seven centuries at least." People not used to modern poetry get grumpy about this kind of stuff. I get grumpy too.

There's a page or two of notes near the end. The notes aren't quite in the same order as the poems they refer to.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

"The night Trotsky came to stay" by Allison McVety (Smith/Doorstop, 2007)

This book won the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition 2006, and she won the National Poetry Competition in 2011. Poems come from The North, Rialto, Envoi, Interpreter's House, etc. Several of the poems are sonnet-shaped, rhymeless.

There are phrases I like - e.g.

  • From "Swimming Lessons" - "how to keep going, to endure the cold,/ to enjoy the loneliness, to think of other things besides the swim"
  • From "Tasting the drink" - "You have lived your years on a life-raft, knowing not to drink, but craving something all the same"

More often I'm puzzled by simple-sounding poems.

"Pediscript" and "Needle work" face each other. In "Pediscript" , "Paving stones were vellum to her shoes, the soles marked out with chalk which he'd put there to keep her home ... the street lamps unmasked her text, and traced the tracks of secret, calligraphic trips". In what sense did he think they'd keep her home? In "Needle work" he's unconscious across the doorway, drunk. She goes out "to see the woman who unpicks problems. // Back again she checks his pockets for the inch of chalk he used to spy, ... re-marks the soles of her shoes, resumes her knitting". Who's the woman? In what sense spy? Why the willing subservience?

I don't get "His theory of string".

I'm puzzled by this, the middle stanza of "Interiors" -

All these interiors mingle in gutters,
buffeted by a now-quiet wind, more drift
than back-draught so that high-rise
shuffles with bungalow, Cheadle Hulme
with Hale Barnes. In the ticker-tape
a crystal vase re-shatters on grid, steals the sun.

I don't get "Under trees". The "I", sitting on the bed, notices the beads of "you" (is "you" a daughter dressing up at a mirror? An old mother in bed?). The "I" imagines the beads as planets (why?), imagines being on one of them, walking under trees, dancing at the Ritz. Then "If I snapped the string, let loose the planets, I'd scoop up a different life, exchange the sphere under your fingers for the one in my hand". Is the "I" imagining being on the planet when the string is snapped? And were there an exchange, so what?

The ending of "Women at their gates" is rather flat and wordy - "We think we shaped ourselves but it was this mix of women padlocked to their kitchen lives who taught us how to wait and what it means to go".

The first and the last poems from the book are online -

Saturday, 5 October 2019

"The virginity of famous men" by Christine Sneed (Bloomsbury, 2016)

Stories from "Southern Review", "New England Review", "Ploughshares", "Literary Review", etc., all 20-30 pages long In the first piece, "Beach vacation", a wife and son go on holiday, the mother (who still considers herself attractive) aware of her son's popularity, the son surly. When a girl he knows suddenly leaves he quickly connects with a woman his mother's age. The mother tries to exert control - "She recognised that she being selfish but could not stop herself".

Differences in age, fame, wealth and beauty create insecurity in relationships - divorce and a beautiful person feature in nearly all the earlier stories. Here are some quotes -

  • "Rejection is the relentless, powerful hazing that disables ninety-seven out of a hundred talented people" (p.40)
  • "I adored her in spite of her prejudices and ignorance and selfishness. I also knew that she couldn't possibly love me" (p.66)
  • "I didn't yet know what I was capable of. Most of us, either because we're lucky or we're cowards, never find out" (p.68)

There are no problems with the believability of the characters, or the quality of the observations. However, I preferred the stories on other themes. In "Five Room" (maybe my favourite piece) an opinionated, none too attractive teenager ends up helping an old blind man who's going through a break-up while her divorced mother tries to cement her own relationship. In the entertaining "Roger Weber would like to stay" a woman has a relationship with a ghost while having another with a man. Eventually she tells the man and dumps the ghost. "The new, all-true CV" is an autobiography inappropriate for its putative purpose, though a fun read.

"Whathisname" is ok. "Clear Conscience" isn't. Nor "Older sister" or "The Couplehood Julilee", in which a couple organise a fake wedding that might as well have been a real one. The final, title, piece revives the theme of fathers being attracted to son's girlfriends, and the mileau of [wannabe] movie people. The wannabe screen-writer son, Will, is working on an autobiographical piece that's unlikely to please his famous actor father. The son and his girlfriend have rented an apartment in Paris. His father visits for a weekend, the first time the two men have met for a while (they fell out over a woman they were both after). He splashes money to impress Jorie, the girlfriend - "Will could see something shift in his father's face, some decision being made about Jorie, that she was as susceptible as anybody to his charm" (p.289). Yeah. The story ends well.

Other reviews

  • Jack Smith (This collection represents a compelling range of characters and provocative plots. ... The stories that make up this volume are powerful testaments to Sneed’s sharp sense of the nature of inwardness, of carefully delineated internal conflicts.)
  • Kirkus Review (Though most stories stop short of promising hope, readers will find themselves invested in these worlds and lives. Tenderly portrayed and sharply observed. A rich collection.)
  • Christi Clancy (Sneed focuses less on the pursuit of sex and love than on the more complicated matter of love’s fallout)
  • Sally Shivnan (Sneed takes her characters to the brink of something at the end of each story, but the brink of what exactly can be hard to say. ... She crafts nuanced portraits of all sorts of people who never give up struggling to make sense of what they’re experiencing. Her characters work hard. They try to confide, they try to love, even when it doesn’t quite succeed.)

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

"Sangue e neve" by Jo Nesbo (Einaudi, 2015)

In the first chapter the main character Olav (a liquidator for his boss Hoffman), who's just killed someone, lists his weakness. They often derive from his mother - weak-willed, submissive, short tempered, bad with numbers, dyslexic. He reads many library books, remembers many assorted facts and quotes. He doesn't like dealing with drugs or prostitutes. He doesn't like hold-ups or getaway driving. He likes Maria, a deaf-mute cripple he helped save from a drug-pusher. He gave a lot of money to the widow of one of his victims.

He worries that when he knows too much about his boss he'll be liquidated. At the end of the chapter, Hoffman tells him that his next job is to kill Hoffman's wife, Corina, for 5 times his usual fee. As soon as he starts casing the joint, he falls in love with her.

He kills her young lover who visits daily, finds out that he was Hoffman's son by his first marriage, escapes with Corina, arranges a deal with his ex-boss, il Pescatore, to kill Hoffman. Olav's killed 3 of il Pescatore's men when he found that il Pescatore had planned to get him killed.

We discover that Olav's father physically abused his mother, that Olav killed his father (who'd just come out of jail), and that Olav had planned to go to University.

Corina and Olav get on very well. They get tickets to escape to Paris. After Hoffman's killed, one of il Pescatore's men shoots Olav. Corina knew about it. Olav hobbles on to meet Maria, then dies.

I liked the book when we were learning about Olav. It became linear and more predictable towards the end.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

"In Search of equilibrium" by Theresa Lola (Nine Arches Press, 2019)

Rather unpredictable both at the level of poems and lines. You never know what well be on the next page. I admire how she's gone back to basics. For the journey from the world to words, what needs to be packed? Apparently NHS forms rather than renaissance ones, tech rather than formalist techniques. Formats abound.

All the same, "<h>Cutting Back on Work Shifts</h1>" puzzles me. It might look like HTML to the uninitiated but the bugs are serious and various enough to require explanation. That "<body>" is ended by "<body>" rather than "</body>" might be explained psychologically (preferring to re-start the body rather than end it) but that doesn't apply to "<h>". The value of "src" in the "img" tags lack an opening quote-mark. Why? The grandfather (the poem's in his voice) worked for years as a computer engineer. Now he has dementia. I guess that explains it. His decline, death, and the narrator's attempts to cope with the subsequent grief, is the main thread of the book.

It's easy to pick out quotable phrases -

  • My grandmother holds the rosary beads like a line of pills she wants to overdose on (p.9)
  • Research shows our memory of music remains intact,/ like the clothes of a missing child kelpt by a mother;/ the brain stores music in a different place,/ - a subtle precaution (p.14)
  • it must hurt for someone you love/ to remember a song in clearer detail than your face (p.14)
  • When you are running from the dark even a light bulb will feel like God's eye socket (p.25)
  • I am so beautiful death can’t take its eyes off me. (p.27)
  • Grief is the most expensive thing I own. I hide it in a safe box, I admit I only wear it for special occasions where men will bid to buy it off me (p.28)
  • A rope was found clinging to his neck. We think it was a halo failed by gravity (p.49)
  • Somewhere a doctor is being trained to prevent the word dead wobbling on his tongue like a fallen star (p.51)
  • we debate which song transports our body to the womb of another world (p.52)
  • Jesus wept/ for at the time of the painting/ blue was a more expensive colour than gold/ but times change/ and we invent new ways to cheapen God (p.55)

There's a "golden shovel" (this time a poem's lines begin with the same 2 words as a Plath poem does) - an increasingly popular form.

My favourites were "WikiHow To Find Things You Have Lost" and "Black Marilyn". "Tayloring grief" is online.

Other reviews

  • Niroshini Somasundaram (The unnamed grandfather’s death after years of enduring Alzheimer’s disease propels the poet to explore the meanings of existence, identity, faith, and suffering. Biblical imagery and wordplay are central to this collection ... Poems are variously presented as computer coding, live reportage, prayers, algorithms, Wikipedia entries and hip-hop lyrics ... The face, as in ‘shadow be thy face’, is a recurrent theme throughout the collection, as is the language of leakage and spillage of urine and body parts.)
  • Carmina Masoliver (Insomnia is a Cheap Drug uses the form of drug prescription notes where each stanza is placed inside a table. Closer is divided into seven small sections with subheadings, including a questionnaire and a series of prose poems.)
  • Hannah Williams (‘Rebuke The Bad Death’ highlights how indeed most ‘language has no translation for suicide’. To me, if a word doesn’t have a translation, it means people do not have the tools to talk about it. ... This piece subtlety highlights the stigma of suicide in the Nigerian culture and perhaps subtlety paints a poor picture on how it is dealt with. ... My favourite piece in this collection is ‘Blessed are the mothers of a dead child’.)
  • Kitty Horsfall (The intensity of the poems could easily lead to their integral message being lost, and the collection does teeter on the brink of saturation with despondency. )
  • Charlie Hill (‘sweeping me off my bones’ is just one of a number of lines in the collection that stop you dead. Lola is also excellent at a more prosaic accretion of sentiment ... Perhaps writing poetry is the source of this sanity. Perhaps it counterbalances grief. Maybe this is where the equilibrium lies.)

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

"The Unaccompanied" by Simon Armitage (Faber, 2017)

Poems from Granta, LRB, New Yorker, PN Review, Poetry (Chigaco), Poetry Review, TLS, etc. - "his first full-length book of new poems in over a decade" Helen Mort points out. So he starts with "The Last Snowman" which is entertaining all the way until the end, which I didn't get. "Nurse at a bus stop" begins with "The slow traffic takes a good long look./ Jilted bride of public transport,/ alone in the shelter,/ the fireproof bin and shatter-proof glass/ scrawled with the cave art of cocks and hearts". Each line performs a function, and it's clear of pretension.

I like "Privet", whose first stanza is [over?] packed with religious allusions, whose middle stanza has shears with "rolling-pin handles on Viking swords", and whose final stanza includes a father offering his son to the sky/Gods.

"Prometheus", nearly in syllabics, could have been prose. A son goes with his father to a scrap-heap. The father finds a "priceless spark plug ... with CHAMPION branded across it in red, the threaded steel shaft, and below it a gap where the two electrodes didn't quite touch, like the finger of man and the finger of God. Within that divide, in the daylight there, the glint in his eye, the makings of fire.". Pleasant, but (and it's a question I asked myself increasingly as I went through the book) is it really enough? "October" surely isn't.

I think I'm missing the point of some of the pieces. They go down so easily that it can be hard to linger over them. Three examples -

  • "The Keirin" - his father said don't follow it, but he does. It's the motorised pacer bike using in cyclodromes, ridden by someone "with the upright stance of a circus poodle driving a toy train". It/he peels off and disappears. "It was simply a race to the death after that". At the end there's a sudden switch of sports - he passes a lad "sprawled in the open grave of the long jump pit. And a pole-vaulter speared like a speared fish". Life is a game you have to continue after your father's gone?
  • "Snipe" - while wandering by a pond he's nearly hit by a shot that kills a snipe. No sign of where it or the shot had come from. He looks it up in a bird book "to aim a ... snide comment. Single round, lone marksman, could have had my eye out". Snipe, snide, sniper?!
  • "Old Boy" starts simply enough. The final stanza's beyond me though. Its final line is "A monkey with a jigsaw I compensate the day"

I can see the variety of formats. "Deor" is in an old english (anglo-saxon?) format. "To-Do List" is a bullet-marked list. "Solitary" is a villanelle. Several are de-facto prose. "Thank You for Waiting" is a comedy monologue whose line-breaks are out of place. The Present won the Keats-Shelley poetry prize.

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway (Poundland is a particularly brilliant poem ... You cannot miss Armitage’s fascination with obsolete machinery)
  • Steve Bamlett
  • Helen Mort (There’s a sense of something kindling in many of the sharp list poems in the book – ‘Poundland’ nods towards Dante’s inferno, while ‘Thank You for Waiting’ is satire at its best)
  • Josephine Balmer (This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. )
  • Andrew Roycroft (This is Larkin without the bitter edge, married to a Wordsworthian sense of man’s smallness in a changing world which dwarfs his own existence and concerns. There is lostness here, and nascent hope)