From my Poetry Bookshelf – Kevin Powers – Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

The next recommendation from my poetry bookshelf is Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.

I used to be a member of the Poetry Book Society, (established by TS Eliot in 1953), who for an annual fee will send out their recommended books every few months. It’s a nice way to discover books that you wouldn’t otherwise read, and I may well rejoin at some point. Obviously there will be books you get that don’t appeal, but if nothing else it pushes you out of your comfort zone. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting was one book I received during my time as a member ( a birthday present from my father for a few years, so if you happen to be reading this, thank you!). For more information on the PBS, go to

https://www.poetrybooks.co.uk

Back to my book of the week. Kevin Powers is an Iraq war veteran, like Brian Turner, the author of Here, Bullet , another book I have written about in this blog. This book differs from Turner’s work in that whilst there are poems about the experience of fighting in Iraq, there are also plenty about life afterwards, about trying to come to terms with what has happened, about trying to make some sense in the aftermath of such experiences.

In Independence Day he writes;

But I
believed the woman in Ward C of McGuire veterans’
hospital
who told me to dig
my feet into the ground as hard as I
could if I
ever doubted
the firmness of reality.

And I
had practiced digging down
and down into the earth
with my hands
with my elbows
with my body
with my eyes
gone wide, in fact I
have tried to become earth
many times, to be lower than earth, and I
have known many boys
who practiced it so much
that they stayed below the surface.

PTSD and the aftershock of war is a constant theme. For another example, listen to Powers reading his poem After Leaving McGuire Veterans’ Hospital for the Last Time which also appears in the book.

The language is generally straightforward. Some see this as a cause for criticism

One reviewer on Goodreads commented that: It does so much telling and so little showing that I wondered about who his poetry mentors and teachers were. The one thing every poetry teacher/mentor/writer has always pounded into my head it was “show, not tell”.

In her review for the Observer, Kate Kellaway saw it differently, writing;

Powers has a defended voice with every reason under an Iraqi (or sometimes Texan) sun. Deflating endings are a speciality, as if to avoid paying war the compliment of a climax:

… It is night again and endless
are the stars. I can tell you exactly
what I mean. The world has been replaced
by our own ideas about the world.

This flat conclusion is not as exact as all that. More successful in its reductive way is the title poem’s ending about war as “making little pieces of metal/ pass through each other”. The bareness, unrescued by commentary, is typical Powers.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/13/letter-composed-during-lull-review-kevin-powers

Here’s the poem in full;

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

I tell her I love her like not killing   
or ten minutes of sleep   
beneath the low rooftop wall   
on which my rifle rests.   

I tell her in a letter that will stink,   
when she opens it,   
of bolt oil and burned powder   
and the things it says.   

I tell her how Pvt. Bartle says, offhand,   
that war is just us   
making little pieces of metal   
pass through each other.

Andrew Motion in the Guardian ( trying to find easily accessible reviews not behind the paywall tends to limit my options on sources!) wrote as follows;

Its lyrics describe a sparsely populated mental landscape and project a jittery sensibility that is hungry for consolation yet removed from most comforts; they are written in choppy free verse that is at once wired and conversational (sometimes to a fault); the whole effort is impressive in its sincerity and virtually unimpeachable in its distress.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/28/letters-composed-during-lull-fighting-review-kevin-powers

I think the lack of floridity, and generally straightforward, conversational tone gives it an immediacy and authenticity which lends itself to the subject matter, and raw impact of many of the poems. It’s a strong addition to the canon of war poetry, and one worth considering if this is a subject matter that is of interest.

I’ll finish this with a quote by Michael Symmons Roberts on the back of my copy of the book;

Like the best war poets, Kevin Powers’ real subject is not the battle for land or governance, but the battle for one man’s soul. In dramatising that inner conflict, he achieves a poetry both urgent and universal.

You can find Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting alongside my other recommended, (and others yet to be written about), books at

https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf

My previously written about books (I hesitate to call them reviews) can be found here:

Words for the Wild

I have a previously unpublished poem on the Words for the Wild Website. It’s a poem about running, ornithology and growing old. You can read it here, and also see some of my photographs taken on pre-marathon training runs.

Clearly as I took lots of photographs it was pretty slow running – I wasn’t exactly a fast runner – indeed, when I completed the London Marathon I was overtaken by two blokes dressed as a camel as I staggered towards the finishing line đŸ™‚

It’s a really nice site, and I am very pleased to have a poem included. Have a good look around whilst you are there.

David Jones on the BBC

A quick post today to mention the BBC 4 documentary on David Jones’ In Parenthesis, which I watched last night (it’s still available on the BBC’s website and on catch-up if you have it).

I thought it was excellent. Follow the link below to watch it on the BBC website.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07kt9pj

Regular readers of my blog (all three of you!) will know that In Parenthesis was one of the first books I referenced in my Poetry Bookshelf series of posts. You can read my brief introduction to the work here.

But the film is, obviously, much better, so if you only have time to follow one of the links, go to that one!

From my Poetry Bookshelf – John Agard – Alternative Anthem

Happy World Poetry Day!

A good day to ask whether poetry is still relevant, whether it can actually achieve anything apart from providing an outlet for creative expression. In these current times of misinformation and misdirection, where here in the UK, as elsewhere, the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian, what can poetry do?

A good day for this poem by John Agard.

Flag

What’s that fluttering in a breeze?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that brings a nation to it’s knees.

What’s that furling from a pole?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that makes the guts of men grow bold.

What’s that rising over a tent?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that dares the coward to relent.

What’s that flying across a field?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that will outlive the blood you bleed.

How can I possess such a cloth?
Just ask for a flag my friend.
Then blind your conscious to the end.

From Half-Caste and other poems (Hodder’s Children’s 2004)

A good poem to share at a time when our politicians increasingly wrap themselves in the union flag, appeal to Britishness and blame others for their failings – whether the EU, migrants, travellers, woke lefties, there will always be a scapegoat. And 30-40% of the British public will fall for it. As no doubt was the case with every other similar regime in history.

This particular poem has been widely posted online, (which apart from it’s relevance today is one of the reasons I’ve chosen it), and looks like it has been used by teachers, as have some of Agard’s other poems – notably Half Caste and Checking Out Me History which have appeared in the AQA GCSE English anthology since 2002.

Flag‘s anger is perhaps a little atypical – as Maura Dooley states, quoted on the back of the Bloodaxe Books anthology which I am recommending today ( Flag isn’t in it BTW) – ‘His poems are direct and arresting. playful, full of startling imagery, and are hilarious, passionate and erotic as often as they are political – often managing to be all these things at once.’

John Agard was born in British Guiana in 1949. He loved listening to cricket commentary and began making up his own, which led to a love of language. Agard moved to Britain in 1977 with his partner, the equally fine poet Grace Nicholls. He was awarded the Queens Gold Medal for Poetry in 2012.

A good place to start with his work is Alternative Anthem, the Bloodeaxe Books published Selected Poems, which comes with a Live DVD (and available, of course, on my Poetry Bookshelf). I’m glad the DVD is included, because whilst the poems work very well on the page, to really appreciate them it’s best to hear and see them being performed by him.

I met John Agard at a Tongues and Grooves poetry event in the Square Tower in Portsmouth back in 2013 (was it really 8 years ago?!) It was a fantastic event, and he is a brilliant performer, one of the best I have ever seen. Once these days of lockdown are over, if you get the chance to see him read live, just buy a ticket. You won’t regret it.

There are lots of recordings available of him online. As it’s World Poetry Day, I thought I’d share Agard reading Poetry Jump Up – if it doesn’t at the very least make you smile then please get someone to check your pulse.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9gA8hzmsbo

Here’s a second recording, this time of the title poem in his Bloodeaxe selected, Alternative Anthem, which if you aren’t familiar with the poem, starts with the lines;

Put the kettle on
Put the kettle on
It is the British answer
To Armageddon.

It’s a joyous way to end this post

Oh and if you want to buy a copy of Alternative Anthem, it’s available via My Poetry Bookshelf on Bookshop.org through the following link

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/5319/9781852248239

(If you do buy anything via My Poetry Bookshelf then I will make a small commission that will help towards the running costs of this website).



Seamus Heaney

Happy St Patrick’s Day! I thought I’d use it as an excuse to share this video of Seamus Heaney reading and discussing some of his poems;

I’ll write in more detail about one or more of Heaney’s books another time (you won’t be surprised to know that I have several of them on my poetry bookshelf).

I was lucky enough to see him reading from one of his later collections at an event at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. More of this, perhaps, on another occasion as I have to get back to the day job in social media management. Truly I am living the dream…

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Saughton Sonnets Anthology

I received this book as a birthday present earlier this year. It’s an anthology of poems written by residents of HMP Edinburgh (Saughton) during lockdown amongst the COVID 19 Pandemic.

The book came out of a project by First Time Inside, who give support to those who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, life within the justice system in Scotland, particularly those going to prison for the first time. Ostensibly set up as a poetry competition, it was an initiative for those participating an opportunity to engage with a community wider than is normally the case.

It was a way for them to share their thoughts and experiences, develop skills and gain confidence which can help them to move forwards with their lives. As quoted in the introduction to the book, it was an initiative designed to challenge aspiration poverty whilst also tackling commonly held negative preconceptions of the prison populations in Scotland.

You can find further information on the Hidden Voices project on the First Time Inside website here. It includes poems from the anthology, letters and interviews with some of the contributors. It’s a huge eye-opener and really shows the importance of projects such as this.

If you only read one article on this website, have a look at what Paula, the Bubbly Poet has written, (her poem, about an encounter with a mouse, is one of my favourites from the anthology).

So what are the poems like? They are a mix of a wide range of emotions – raw, powerful, angry, sad, funny, and in many cases, with a strong element of hope for the future. Stylistically they vary greatly. Each voice is unique and, of course, fully authentic. There’s also a good mix of subject matter – as an example an absolutely brilliant poem about making yoghurt!

I’m going to share one of the other poems here – I hope it’s OK to do so.

Lockdown

1. The lockdown means visits every day,
from every thought you’ve worked so hard to keep away.
2. It’s praying every single night to a God no where in sight
that those you love will be alright.
3. It’s looking up at the nighttime stars through reinforced
iron bars while the world outside drifts ever far.
4. It’s loneliness and fear, vague answers that are unclear to questions
no one wants to hear.
5. It’s getting tea at 4 as if we’re 4 knowing we got 6 hours more to endure,
pacing the floor, bunker to door wondering whether
it goes on 6 days, 6 weeks, 6 months or more.
6. It’s getting locked up for public protection then getting l
ocked up extra to protect us from the public!
7. It’s watching our brave doctors and nurses get praised
by politicians that spent years emptying their purses.
8. It’s waiting all day for just 5 minutes on the phone to
remind those we love they’re not alone.
9. It’s taking time to write a letter to say,
‘stay strong things will get better’.
10. It’s finding the inner drive to survive and thrive,
to not become defeated as day on day the routine’s repeated.
11. It’s finding strength you didn’t know was there,
accepting responsibility we all now share, finding new ways to show
we care and pushing the limits of what we can bear.
12. It is standing strong, it’s digging deep, it’s finding a little peace to sleep,
it’s focussing on ‘just today’ and all the other overused cliches.
13. It’s preparing to pick up the pieces and begin again and knowing,
no matter how long this last, it WILL END.

The above poem was one of the winners of the competition, but all the poems are compelling, and shine a light on life within the prison system here in the UK. I could easily share any of the other poems, but I’d rather you bought the book and help fund future work of this kind.

If you want to do so, please follow the link below.

Taking another quote the introduction of this book, It’s simply not good enough in 21st century Scotland that someone should hold the belief that prison is the best version of life they can hole for. Neither should we – living in a progressive society – conform to lazy, Victorian values which prescribe to punishment without compassion.

Lack of compassion is a huge issue in this supposedly caring country. We see the same attitude towards many other marginalised members of society, often encouraged by inflammatory comments by high profile politicians.

A number of years ago I was involved in setting up a series of poetry workshops in Haslar Immigration Removal Centre. The subjects these asylum seekers, (or ‘economic migrants’ as Priti Patel and others would label them), would want to write about? Home, family, friends, food, society. All which they have lost in flight from war, famine or persecution.

Then look at how certain MPs, Conservative mainly, describe the urban poor, or single parents, or travellers. Victorian values? This would be a step up form some of them.

Anyway, I digress. The Saughton Sonnets anthology really is an excellent collection, and one I highly recommend, and all sales go towards supporting a very good cause.

For more information on First Time inside go to;

A World Still Ours

From the Guardian this morning…

Australia’s former finance minister Mathias Cormann has won a hard-fought election to become the new chief of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), despite grave concerns voiced by environmental groups over his record on climate change.

Outside the wind is howling. The washing line would sing if it were taut enough to vibrate a note. This is just weather, of course, not climate. But is anyone listening anyway?

Should people with records like Cormann have any say in the direction of powerful organisations like the OECD? What does this say about the people who we entrust with our children’s futures? Meanwhile, here in the UK, HS2 will continue to be built as Johnson sets plans in motion towards building a tunnel or bridge to Northern Ireland. A coal mine in Cumbria remains under consideration. They carry on. A bit of greenwash lip service to placate the masses, but nothing really changes in the minds and actions of those who purport to lead us.

Yet there are encouraging signs. I work (part-time) managing social media accounts for three different recruitment brands. One of them is an engineering recruitment company, so I am constantly looking for articles and news pieces that I can add to the company feed. The huge range of new initiatives and new products being developed specifically aimed at tackling climate change and our inefficient use of resources is incredibly encouraging. I just hope we have enough time.

In the meantime, we all carry on as best we can. The sun is shining. Daffodils are nodding in the wind. Today my eldest daughter is moving out of the family home. We will miss her of course, but it is time. In other news, Pompey are playing in the Checkatrade Final at a fan-less final at Wembley – I wrote about the cancellation of the game back in April last year;

If nothing else it’s a reminder of something we lost last spring. Zoom can only do so much. I quite enjoy an online poetry event, (I’ve been to three in the last week), and it’s lovely to see familiar faces again, but it isn’t the same. I so miss meeting people in person, whether a catch up for a coffee, a writers event in a local cafe, or being with 60,000 other Pompey fans shouting and singing together in a sea of blue.

Bur if happiness today feels so fleeting or tissue-paper thin, whether through Covid, Brexit, climate worries, or something else, we still have each other, we still have our choices, there is still much that can be done. The ending is as yet unwritten.

I’ll finish this post with the last poem from Landings , my first collection (still available from Dempsey & Windle Publishing) – the photo accompanying this blog post became the cover illustration.

At Full TIme

I hear the meaning, not the words,
the drifting lilt of tone,
a singing crowd over late night traffic.

On the other side of glass as seasons turn,
waiting for the sky to fall,
a single drop of rain and then another.

The spatter of footsteps on pavements;
water sanctifies the profane,
softens the smack of heel and toe.

Windows streaked by meteor showers.
A delta of streams will build;
to catch these words and float their meaning.

From here dark clouds cast spray-dust,
as drifting bands of stars;
the world still ours if we reach for it.

Lightning fuses earth in the distance,
this city asleep and wide awake,
voices rising over background static.

A Poetry Haul

What else is there to spend birthday money on in lockdown than poetry books (apart from food, beer and wine of course, and whisky, gin, tequila…I could go on) ? Some of these were presents, but others were bought with birthday present money.

The best way to improve your writing is to read. Different voices, different styles, different subject matter and writers from different eras. I’ve got a few gaps in my knowledge I need to sort out in order to improve my own poems. I’ve already finished one of these books – can you guess which one?

I’d better get reading the others – I need more reviews for My Poetry Bookshelf!

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Jeremy Hooker – Master of the Leaping Figures

This week’s book from my poetry bookshelf is Jeremy Hooker’s Master of the Leaping Figures. It was published by Enitharmon Press in 1987 and is now out of print. Enitharmon have a collected, which I don’t own yet, and a more recent collection, Scattered Light, from 2015. If you are interested in buying them then they can be purchased here;

https://enitharmon.co.uk/authors/jeremy-hooker-2/

You can also get these books on Bookshop.org, along with some other collections, this time published by Shearsman (another poetry publisher whose work is worth delving into) . None are on my virtual poetry bookshelf , as I haven’t bought them yet, so it would be wrong for me to put them there at this time.

If you want to buy his Shearsman published books direct from the publisher then their Jeremy Hooker page is at;

https://www.shearsman.com/store/Hooker-Jeremy-c28271771

I probably ought to make a purchase, but it was my birthday recently, and I have a lot of new gifts to read first. But it’s on my radar. Along with so many other books. There are also plenty of other poets’ whose work I greatly admire, but of whom I only have one or two collections. More purchases on the horizon. But where do we stop, we collectors of books? Maybe I’ll have to start a poetry loan library when this Covid crisis is over. Except that poets need book sales. Poetry isn’t exactly the most financially rewarding art form, and collection sales are small.

My first collection, Landings, which is still available directly from me or through my publisher’s Dempsey & Windle has, I think, sold about 100 copies (I haven’t been taking an exact tally). I was at an Arvon course 15 years ago, and one of the tutors, the excellent Mario Petrucci (who I will feature at some point), said one evening that the year before, only 80,000 poetry books by living poets had been sold in the UK, (I’m not sure whether that was just British writers – my memory is hazy as I’d drunk about 3/4 of a bottle of wine by then). Of course the vast majority of these sales will have been of collections by famous poets. So buy poetry books if you can – buy direct from the poets, from their publishers, from bookshop.org (there is of course also Amazon, but I am currently trying to wean myself off from making purchases from that site, for a whole range of different reasons).

Back to Jeremy Hooker.

Jeremy Hooker (b. 1941) grew up in Warsash near Southampton, and the landscape of this region has remained an important source of inspiration. Many of his poems were written in Wales, where he has lived for long periods of his life. His academic career has taken him to universities in England, the Netherlands and the USA and he is currently Professor of English at the University of Glamorgan. As well as his eleven collections of poetry, Hooker is also well-known as a critic and has published selections of writings by Edward Thomas and Richard Jefferies, and studies on David Jones and John Cowper Powys, all of them important to his own creative life. Other critical titles include Writers in a Landscape and Imagining Wales, whilst Welsh Journal records his life in mid-West Wales during the 1970s.

Master of the Leaping Figures was written when he was Creative Writing Fellow at Winchester School of Art. His writing, like that of many of the poets whose work I am drawn to, is heavily rooted in place. I acquired Master of the Leaping Figures a long time ago – my copy is a first edition – probably not that long after it was published, (I can’t remember how I got hold of it – so if you are reading this and lent it to me I apologise – I hope the overdue book fees aren’t too onerous!).

It was one of my ‘go-to’ collections at that time, and has been pretty influential with my own writing. The whole collection is centred on the geography, history and people of Winchester and its surroundings. This book showed that I could potentially do something similar with my own writing (although I appreciate Fratton is a somewhat different landscape both physically and poetically).

I know Winchester and that part of the South Downs quite well, and studied some of the history that threads through this book – there is a long sequence entitled A Winchester Mosaic early on in the collection which switches back and forth in time, from present day to a segment about the desecration of the cathedral by Cromwell’s troops during the English Civil War. This particular segment ends with the following lines;

jumbling bones of bishops
with bones of Saxon kings.
Skulls grinned at them,
level with their feet.

They saw the joke, and took
thigh bones and flung them
against the west window,
shattering the Resurrection.

The blast that scattered
harlot amethyst and rose
let in pure light, and air
their souls could breathe.

There are other sequences in the book, including a lovely set of three short poems for Norman Ackroyd – as another example of Hooker’s writing I’ll share the second of these in full;

Cheriton Long Barrow

A long low hill in a hill field,
a curve within a curve,
white of ploughed chalk
on pale arable: epitome
of winter’s purity and grace,
of lines like the skeleton’s
long since at one with its bed,
and with nothing opposing it
but the first violet
barely visible in the open hedge.

It’s not surprising that Jeremy Hooker references David Jones as one of his biggest influences on his own writing. Another poet of place, of history, of people interacting with legend and landscape.

You can hear him reading some of his other poems on the Poetry Archive website (which is where I lifted the biographical notes from), including the marvellous Curlew here;

So what do you think? Let me know in the comments. I’ll finish with another poem from the collection, which has been published elsewhere online, so I assume it is OK to share it in full;

At Ovington

For Lee Grandjean, sculptor

You would make a form
that contains, which your hand moulds
as we talk, creating a body
between us, in the air. Below
the broad full river glides
hypnotically, silver,
green and dark. Here wind
meets light and water,
and the current at each instant
finds its bed, erupting
over shoals of weed, sliding
through a lucid gravel run,
continually making
and unmasking lines,
as in my mind I catch
and loose its images,
and about our heads
swifts hawking for mayfly
unerringly, explosively, glide.
I would let all go again,
saying – it is perfect without us,
but as we meet here, we share
words and your hand shaping
the flow, the brute
and graceful wings.
And our feet beat solidly on the bridge.