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, 25 October 2017

"Selfie with Waterlilies" by Paul Stephenson (Paper Swans Press, 2017)

This won the Paper Swans Press Poetry Pamphlet Prize 2017 (not the only pamphlet competition the poet has recently succeeded in!). Many of the individual poems were successful in competitions judged by people as various as Ahren Warner and Clive Wilmer. So if you have any faith in the anonymous, peer-reviewed process (as close to objective assessment in poetry as you're going to get), this is the collection for you. I'll comment on a few of the poems, though the others are well worth reading too.

"Turkish Delight" is a welcoming start, already introducing us to double-edged emotions. The persona, on holiday in Istanbul, seems to get a call that someone is gravely ill, so they book a flight back for later that day, spending their time at the airport buying "Turkish Delight (which is heavy and must be carried)" and promising they'll "return one day to be consumed by the vastness of the Hagia Sophia".

He likes repetition - the next poem "The Rub" (another double-edged title - back-rub but also "ah, there's the rub") has "father" in 20 of its 24 short lines. "Balzac" uses end-rhyme, nearly half of its lines ending with a "sk" sound, the only disruption of the pattern being the final line - "in a Paris mosque, behind plexiglass" - which teasingly could have been regularised, like the decoration in a mosque.

"Baltic Women" sustains an extended metaphor - "Each time I look she's just as slender, the neck long, head in profile facing eastwards ... I like to admire her discrete Bothnia breast and Oulu fringe, her hair bunched in the Arctic Circle .. Upon her left wrist a sober bracelet, a fine silver link that sparkles from spires of Tallinn's old town to the White Church at Helsinki".

I couldn't appreciate the title poem, which Ahren Warner selected in a competition. I often don't understand Warner's tastes - this poet's range of tastes is far wider than mine. "Waistcoat of Life" is one of those poems produced by auto-translating found English text into another language and back again, and so on. "Insulin" is interesting. The first lines is "My father, in the public bar, sat luminous and sunny,", and the poem uses a wide vocabulary - e.g. "a decree nisi, insomniac, he began to linger by sluices". I think the idea is that each line contains the letters of the title, though I've not checked. Other poems could contain patterns that I've missed. Deathflake is probably my favourite, beginning with "Snow in Venice. Sudden snow." and later including "Death down your back. Footprints in the death".

Language (its sound and spelling) is rarely a transparent medium in this book. Sometimes it seeps into the foreground as in "Appeasement" which begins with "I want to know swathe,/ want to bathe in swathe,/ I'd scythe swathes of grasses,/ no, better still, swathes of heather. Lithe, I'd scythe longest swathes loose". In poems like "Scaffolding" however, content takes precedence. "I'm not malicious but have scarred a woman" it begins. Later, "Her tummy had collapsed so they were propping it up in Norfolk, freeing her husband home in Suffolk to oversee his extension". Later still "I caught her naked, darting from their half-finished bedroom to half-tiled bathroom. On the landing she [...] pointed to the crease and said You did this".

Other reviews/pages

  • Valuation (plus an interview)
  • Chris Edgoose (Stephenson takes a more-than-usual delight in language ... it seems to me that he uses this delight as a distancing mechanism, a way of stepping back from the objects of his poems in order to take a clearer look)


  1. Dear Tim

    I can't pretend that I had ever heard of him but you make him sound worthy of further investigation. My 'Images of Istanbul' contains a whole collection of poems about that great city.

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish

  2. He's definitely worth watching. There's also "Those People" (Poetry Business, 2015) and "The days that followed Paris" (Happenstance, Sold Out).