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BREATH-TAKING: A GEOGRAPHY by Jeffrey Loffman, reviewed by Luigi Marchini

lofIt is rare indeed nowadays to encounter a poetry collection which exudes the traditional values of the art form. This is such a book: it displays an effortless precision of language along with significance, traits which seem to have become increasingly out of fashion, such is the penchant for the new or innovative.

Breath-Taking is a joy to read and whilst Loffman does not attempt anything fancy, there are some poems that required several readings. In these he is more experimental than in the rest of the book whilst still displaying considerable skill and control: I will come to one of these poems – a marvel – a little later. The overriding feeling I have now as I reflect back on the collection is the passion that illuminates each poem. The reader cannot help but be swept along with the sincerity, the conviction displayed.

Aptly titled and subtitled (breath is referenced frequently and the reader is taken on a journey encompassing many places on this world and beyond) the book displays, effortlessly, a full range of poetic techniques. Witness the consonance at the very start of the book:

Moonscapes
i

‘alone
crusty silica seas
around the crescent light above;’

and the personification in the same poem;

iii
‘no laboratory work
discovers the gods’.

The syntax used throughout the book is judged to suit each poems mood admirably, e.g. ‘to ballad’ and the wonderful ‘but sleep comes too early for the impatient’, both found in ‘Moonscapes.’ Or how about the oh-so-right ‘eighty-eight years in her stare’ from ‘Beyond the Wall’?

Although Loffman demonstrates a keen sense of place in his poems, his love of England, his despair for what has become of it, shines through. In ‘Which Eye Sees’ the narrator describes his colleague as enthusing ’For this is Eden, this is England.‘ at the start but by the end after a revealing climb (the poem is a take on an M.R.James story, almost certainly ‘A View From a Hill’ ) the narrator thinks ‘this cannot be England’.

Of course Loffman is not just rooted in his native country – the collection is subtitled ‘A Geography’ after all – and he takes us to Africa, Asia, Europe, detouring to Ancient Greece and even the cosmos. These poems are the most political in the book: the ‘new wailing walls’ of Gaza in ‘Nakbah, Nakbah’, the ‘vacant space’ of Tiananmen Square in ‘I Bow Before You…’. the ‘ barbed bodies’ of ‘Walls May Fall’; the important thing to note though is that he is not didactic. Yes the poems are critical of regimes, of horrific events, but Loffman’s immense skill is that he denounces these subtly, relying on his adroit use of language to underpin his thoughts, his intentions.

This fine collection contains eulogies, ekphrastic poems, interpretations, nature poems as well as very personal pieces and not once did I feel overwhelmed by verbosity or mawkishness. This came as a surprise because when I first received the book there was a great similarity in terms of form and layout; consequently I expected a ‘dense’ read, a ‘bit of a slog’ if you like. Nothing can be further from the truth. Of course the subjects are weighty but Loffman’s touch is light in the right places so each poem is a fluid and engaging read.

There are two highlights for me and I will focus on these now. ‘On Dungeness Beach’ crept up on me almost surreptitiously. To be honest when confronted with a poem about ‘nature’ I have the tendency to grimace, shout in despair and run away. And that is how I approached this poem, with a pre-determined view that I would not like it. Of course, I was greatly mistaken. The poem is nigh on perfect in its use of imagery and hooks the reader from the opening lines:

‘Sixty, or seventy, gulls standing still
meet in complete silence over me,’

Immediately I am reminded of Du Mauriers ‘The Birds’ and a feeling of menace is instilled. Looking at the wording carefully and Loffman’s skill becomes clearer. If it had been a definite number of gulls at the start, sixty say, the certainty in the narrators mind would transmit to the reader. Instead the uncertainty in the narrator sows a seed of doubt in the readers mind, causing an unease that is intensified in the second line where we find all those birds not only silent but standing over the narrator.

Half way through this first stanza, the narrator asks ‘why do they stand so still?’ a question simultaneously repeated silently by this reader. This occurs at the end of the first sentence and earlier Loffman has beautifully detailed the surroundings on the beach with its ‘debris of rubber tubes’, and ‘old net wires’. The stanza gains momentum in the second half with the onomatopoeic ‘rusted rail-tracks’ and the alliteration of ‘with the wind sipping the seas’ And the stanza ends with:

‘Black wings, the gulls hunt parallel
to the surface of the sea, forays
every five minutes.’

The implied doom at the start of the stanza is therefore carried through to the end with the apt syntax used by Loffmann, ‘black’ and ‘hunt’.

In the second stanza the gulls seem to be no longer menacing but, instead, are ‘statues’ acting as

‘a vigil for all the fisherwives
who made fires at four in the morning ‘
and the stanza ends with,
‘or the men who worked the lifeboat
where you’d cling to rigging, to the dead’.

These two extracts demonstrate the beauty and the skill of Loffman’s writing. The ominous imagery of the first stanza is replaced by assertiveness; now the narrator knows why the gulls are still and there is tenderness here: the hunters are now keeping vigil, a salute to the fishermen and wives. The phrasing is lovely-‘who made fires at four in the morning’ is wonderful as is the half rhyme of ‘cling’ and rigging’. Sons and daughters are ‘buried’ and now we are in the reality, the concreteness of life and the allusions of the opening stanza are now fully comprehended.

The final stanza starts with:

‘Two hundred names saved in sixty
years; sixty gulls stand still…’

We surmise that each gull-there are definitely sixty now, not the sixty or seventy of the previous two stanzas-signifies a year in the life of the Dungeness Lifeboat Station and the poem continues to carefully detail life by the sea. It ends powerfully:

‘…we are thrown
by a passing stranger into the water.
into the stone piles, into our past.’

The ‘past’ here, the ‘dead’ at the end of the previous stanza and the black gulls hunting at the end of the opening stanza, Loffman has intricately crafted ‘On Dungeness Beach’ to a naturally satisfying conclusion.

The second poem it is essential to look at is ‘Trying to Find Charles Olson’s House’. This is one of the experimental poems I mentioned at the start but it is only experimental in its length (eight pages) and the loose structure when compared with the rest of the book. It is a tour-de-force of a poem, a work which rewards many readings and, perhaps, deserves to be published on its own. It also deserves an in-depth, detailed review for which we have no time here. But I will do the best I can in the space left.

It reminds me, at times, of ‘The Wasteland’ such is the awe Loffman’s poem has inspired in me. Like Eliot’s masterpiece ‘Olson’ seems to me to go far beyond a concern with modern civilisation and mankind’s place in it. Loffman’s treatment of character is similar to Eliot’s and verbally there are echoes for me. There is extensive use of myth, archetypal patterns, and literary parallels.

Charles Olson, as a poet, championed ‘Projective Verse’ with its emphasis on writing ‘by ear’, ‘breath-conditioned’, and here Loffmann seems to endorse this way of writing. Look at the start for example:

1
‘But where is it? in the space between
ink and vellum, the end of the line
Black Mountain myth Black Mountain Maximus
where the letter, stress and syllable on the page
……….these were my thoughts as i prepared for sleep.’

Here Loffmann demonstrates how he means to continue, with form as an extension of content, in the way Olson championed.
Highlights in this first section include:

‘not an easy journey then,
…………………………………….across
………………………the sea, the restless sea
no turning back’
and:
‘Is this war, is this wisdom? Some say that this
is the human condition’

Wonderful writing and the idea of myth is fully realised at the start.

Loffman’s search for Olsons house is really a metaphor for his admiration for and his exploration of Olson’s work. Therefore he references Moby Dick (‘Call Me Ishmael’ is a famous Olson essay), red wheelbarrows (he was seen as a link between Williams and Stevens, and the New American Poets’, Derrida among others in this first part.

How about this:

‘I wandered; bluebells hazed in their crowd’.

Loffman has succeeded in this poem in giving life to words, to subvert what is expected. it is almost perfect both as a poem and as a homage to Olsen. The ending,

‘the song you sing,
..the beat you played,
the line you made,
….the breath you gave’

beautifully encapsulates this.

Breathtaking is a collection I highly recommend. It is not perfect-what is-as there are some poems that, fine as they are, do not add much to the book- ‘At Branwell’s Dressing Up box’ and ‘There is a Mountain’ work well on their own but seem to be lost here. The best compliment I can pay the book is that once finished for the first time, I picked it up immediately and read it again.

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When the Americans Came by William Bedford

today's poem vertical

WHEN THE AMERICANS CAME
USAF Hemswell: North Lincolnshire 1962

When the Americans came,
they didn’t take to our gardens:
the apple orchard smelling of wild garlic,
foxgloves growing among the runner beans.

‘Do you have vampires around here?’
a visitor from Carolina asked me.
It was a shambles, Wilfred knew that,
nodding wisely as though apologising

for the ill manners of King George,
the clematis purple in the thatched roofing.
But come the softe sonne,
there are oxlips in Fry’s woods,

forget-me-nots in the shallow stream,
lettuce and spring onions for a salad.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat*

I tried to tell them. But they weren’t women,
and didn’t care to listen to a boy.
They preferred the red rosehips
we used for making wine.

Danced outside the village church
round the maypole Jack Parnham made.
Now they’re gone,
the wild garlic has returned.

*W.B.Yeats, ‘A Prayer for my Daughter.’

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William’s poetry, short stories and essays have appeared in over a hundred magazines worldwide. His Collecting Bottle Tops: Selected Poetry 1960-2008 was published in 2009. His selected short stories and non-fiction, None of the Cadillacs Was Pink, was also published in 2009. He was on the Editorial Board of Poetry Salzburg Review from 2007 to 2016, and was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Oxford Brookes University from 2008 to 2011.

Recent collections include The Fen Dancing and The Bread Horse.

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Braided Wire by Janet Sutherland

 

Braided Wire

 

I wasn’t there. I heard this second hand, much later,
but textbooks show the methodology, the diagrams
for several presentations and for monstrous deviations

from the norm. For calves long dead in situ and for those
just recently deceased. For calves too big or those
whose odd shape makes their birth impossible.

So, let’s return to games with butter at the kitchen table
carving summer scrolls and corrugations, watching
beads of sweat emerging from the surface.

Look at the four of us, you’re telling the story.
My chair on two legs tilted on the dresser, and yours
steady by the Rayburn. You can’t remember much –

was it by the cedar of Lebanon or in the beech wood?
You mime the act of sawing. I wasn’t there
but I recall the field which had that slope, so steep

it made the little Fergie roar. The throttle out so far
the blue smoke coughed in rapid puffs and plumes.
The vet had laid his tools out in the field:

two buckets full of lubricant, three of warm water,
a hand pump, krey hook and a calving chain,
a length of braided saw wire with its introducer.

It was raining, water trickled through her hair.
Your hand on her flank felt the fat she’d come to,
her vulva swollen with two feet emerging.

Hooves, dew claws, pastern joints all faded yellow,
like the white rat I’d dissected in biology. She lay
in the copse under the beech trees, I wasn’t there

but beech mast crunched each time you moved your feet.
I’ve read how it’s done. I know the technicalities,
the rough dismemberment, and what that leaves you with.

(First Prize in the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society Competition 2017)

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Janet Sutherland was born in Wiltshire and grew up on a dairy farm. She has an MA in American Poetry from the University of Essex. Bone Monkey (April 2014) is her third full length collection. Her poems are widely anthologised: from The Virago Book of Love Poetry and The New British Poetry 1968-88 (Paladin) to The Apple Anthology, Nine Arches Press 2013. Her essay Reznikoff and his Sources appeared as an afterword to the recent Black Sparrow (US) and Five Leaves (UK) editions of Reznikoff’s Holocaust. A founder member of Needlewriters writers cooperative, she lives in Lewes, East Sussex.

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Canterbury Festival Poet of the Year Competition | Closing Date: 19-Jun-17

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This is the 11th year of the Competition which has grown considerably from those early days. It has become a respected competition worldwide and a major part of the Festival year. Last year saw entries from all over the world alongside many from local poets.

The Competition is generously support by the School of English at the University of Kent who donate the University of Kent Prize of £200 for the winner, £100 for second and £50 for third places, £25 for the People’s Choice and the Best Read poem receives a bottle of sparkling wine courtesy of the Wine Room, Tankerton. The Awards Evening will be on 2 October 2017 at the Gulbenkian Theatre, University of Kent, further details will be announced in due course.

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Further details here

Last year’s joint First Prize poems:

Midsummer Landing
Instead of looking at the moon that night
we just slept as the silver cylinder touched down
wobbling like a novice ballerina en pointe.

We woke late and wandered out across
Midsummer Common and I remember
the daisies and Julie’s weightless green minidress

and her new freckles, as if pollen from the sun.
It was hot. They had already opened
the hatch like a fridge door and lowered steps.

Near the bridge crossing the Cam I found
a £5 note on the ground, and we danced
into the Fort St George to spend it.

On the bar was a screen showing what seemed
a snow or underwater scene in a SciFi film
in black and white. We ordered pasties,

an expensive Pimms and a pint of beer
as the grainy figure hesitated
then slowly took a small step, then a few more.

David Attwooll

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Love (Through Lidded Eyes)

the banal of us, this blandness, truly love?

Such portent in that word, and yet it seems,

no heavenly flame ignites us from above,

just rare protracted light, in scattered beams.

The socks, the mowing, nested garden chairs,

throw shadows between every slatted blind,

yet love, the word, proclaims such grand affairs,

shedding silver sparkles left in trails behind.

In truth, it glows with subtlety; not ablaze,

a mutual glance, a smile, a flaring phrase,

the safely looping arms encircling waists,

old promises, in memories, each encased.

If love is this, it flows through familiar tracks

light from this is brighter, through the cracks.

Jen Syrkiewicz

 

BON CHANCE!!

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David Cooke

coverThe latest collection from David Cooke, After Hours is just out from Cultured Llama and comes hot on the heels of the successful Two Rivers Press collection, A Murmuration, which received notable reviews in various publications including London Grip and the TLS.

Cooke won a Gregory Award in 1977 and published his first collection, Brueghel’s Dancers in 1984. His retrospective collection, In the Distance, was published in 2011 by Night Publishing and Work Horses in 2012 by Ward Wood Publishing.

 

 

 

LE NU PROVENÇAL
after Willi Ronis

She is like Eve in exile,
awakening each morning
when the sun has risen,
then rising herself,
shackled to the day’s routine.

She opens a shutter,
and the light sweeps in
across the uneven stone floor –
her summons to the tasks
that lie before her.

But first a strip-wash,
the astringent purity
of her ablutions. Leaning over
a basin, the chill water
unseals her eyes.

Still only half awake,
she takes in the tarnished
mirror, a chair; and sees how little
is needed to live
on the far side of paradise.

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ORNITHOLOGY

Here, where no one seems to walk,
they couldn’t give the name of a bird
whose loosely gathered congregation
sweeps the mild midwinter sky
between Miami and Boca.

And so I noted down the details
to help me find it later: the lightly
coloured head it’s hard to see
beyond its dark expansive
wings, the blunt edge of its tail.

The one time I saw them grounded
I sensed how even they were anchored
to necessity, their trailing wings
the robes of Rembrandt scholars
around some broken thing;

and stripping out its sinews
in a clueless, botched dissection,
they had their fill and rose again
into the swirl of the air
like charred scraps above a bonfire.

(Florida.)

David Cooke is co-founder of The High Window (a quarterly review of poetry) along with Anthony Costello.

After Hours explores mortality and transience in the lives of Irish migrants that settled in England in the first half of the 20th century, and the generations that followed them. At the heart of this collection is an elegiac sequence of poems in memory of David Cooke’s father-in-law, a larger than life Irishman who met illness and death with good-humoured resilience.

back cover

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New pamphlet press: Against the Grain Poetry

against-the-grain-logoAgainst the Grain Poetry Press is a new, innovative small independent poetry publisher dedicated to publishing challenging, well-crafted poetry.

It aims to produce beautiful works of art, with high production values and an edgy appeal, that are provocative and moving.

They want their poets to be seen and heard and strive to select strong, fresh, diverse voices for their starkly designed, high-quality pamphlets. Details of their debut poet will be announced shortly.

Submissions window is now open. Please read the guidelines carefully.

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Editors
• Abegail Morley
• Jessica Mookherjee
• Karen Dennison

 

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Waiting by Leela Soma

today's poem

Waiting



The search for a place in the car park
The waiting room heaving with patients and family
The crash of the ubiquitous vending machine
As the sickly sweet colas, and chocolates fall
To eager hands, the sugar breaks the boredom.
More anxiety rises like bile surging up, I try some
distraction. I listen to the weary small talk of the others.
Try to quiz the mobile, messages from well- wishers,
words to quell the anguish in the mind.
Pick up a glossy magazine with healthy, glowing
Photo-shopped celebrities, their blue-white smiles
mocking the grey –green patients with wan looks of pain.
The long corridor buzzes with nurses and auxiliaries holding
folders with details of your body, the x-rays, the scans.
The body ravaged with age springing new dysfunctions
Hoping to be healed and smoothed for the next few months,
Till the next visit.

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Leela Soma is a Scottish-based writer who was born in Madras (former name for Chennai) in India, and now lives in Glasgow. She writes novels, poetry and short stories and publications include ‘Twice Born’, ‘Bombay Baby’ and ‘Boxed In’.

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Happy Birthday Poet Tips

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Today we say a very happy first birthday to Poet Tips and its creator Robert Peake. If you don’t know Poet Tips here are a few facts…

It is a website for recommending poets and making links … “The goal is to help you find a new favourite poet to read, much like a trusted and knowledgeable friend.”

The story goes that one morning in the shower (we have to cover our eyes here) Robert had the idea that if he pools “the recommendations of real people about which poets (rather than poems) are similar to each other, I might be able … to help people find their next favourite poet using technology.”

How does it work?

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So now you know what it’s a bit like… wish it a happy birthday with many returns and head over there now:

http://poet.tips/

One last word from Robert… “It’s been a fun experiment, and thanks to some viral traffic last year we’re now set to break the 6,000 poet mark with nearly 60,000 tips in the system. Nearly a year in, we’re still getting about 2,000 visitors per month as well. My ultimate hope, of course, is that it’s helping people find new poets to read.”

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Robert Peake isan American-born poet living near London.

He created the TRANSATLANTIC Poetry series and Poet Tips .

His newest collection is The Knowledge

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The Bridport Prize closing date 31st May

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International open competition founded in 1973. Poetry Category: 1st prize £5,000 / 2nd prize £1,000 / 3rd prize £500 plus ten highly commended awards of £100. Poems max 42 lines.

Poetry Judge Lemn Sissay. The winning and highly commended poems, short stories and flash fiction are published in an annual anthology. Winners are notified in September and the results will be published on the Bridport prize website on 21 October 2017.

It does cost a whopping £9 per poem to enter….!!

 

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Lemn says, “It feels difficult to say what I am looking for in your poems because to find what I didn’t realise I was  looking for is the experience of reading a good poem.  Except to say I want your poem to electrify me, seduce me, grip me by the neck, carry me, whisper to me and sing to me. All of these things or one of them and much more. I am in the privileged and honored position of being your reader. I come to your work with an open mind and heart in the hope that I will be moved by your words”.