Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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The Hoopoe at the execution, Villebois, Tom Kelly
Templar Poetry, 2015   £5.00

Poem as Iceberg (Helena Nelson)

What I noticed most about these poems was the way they summoned a context bigger than themselves. Sometimes this was obvious – as in the title poem – ‘The Hoopoe at the execution, Villebois’.

Villebois? I looked it up and found the chateau was besieged during the French revolution and later became a prison. So yes, executions probably happened there. That sense of precise background is further supported by the description of the Hoopoe herself, her ‘black and white / stripes, like stark choices’, her ‘feathers a feline ginger’. This is real. This is true.

But then there’s a bit of what feels like pure mythology:

As the blade began to fall I met her glance
and thought of how the children
of the Hoopoe come to them in old age,
take the dew from over their eyes,
remove their fading feathers –
how they moult and are as new.

This has to be poetic invention. But it doesn’t matter. The context has offered a world to me, and I believe in it.

It’s the same in ‘The melted bell’, set in the village of Oradour sur Glane, where 644 inhabitants were massacred in 1944. I didn’t know about the context before reading the poem (I do now) but the detail was rich and real. I felt the burning from the inside.

Even ‘Sigurd’s tale’, which draws on Norse mythology, has a context deeper and far older than itself, from which it draws sustenance.

The poems have more of themselves beneath the surface than on top, so you keep re-reading and wondering. This is just as true of my favourite, ‘Miniatures’, though less easy to illustrate. ‘We take things and shrink them’ is the wonderful opening line. The poet goes on to talk about a ship that has been shrunk. The poet cups the tiny model in his hand, brooding about ‘those things which we could not shrink’.

In some ways this is what all Tom Kelly’s poems do – shrink a huge experience into something smaller. But what is there, in small, evokes much more. So much that could not be shrunk. The evocation is huge.

Reconsidering bodies (Clare Best)

There’s an Alice in Wonderland sense of confused scale and size in these poems. In ‘Miniatures’, the opening poem, this confusion is one of the subjects the poet addresses, setting the tone of the collection and creating the illusion that we viewers/readers, like the ‘small gods’ who look down, are sometimes larger in some way than the things we are looking at. At other times, we’re smaller. This is unnerving and yet somehow true to the reading process.

What happens then, once we have the sense of being obliged to be bigger or smaller than what we’re looking at, is that we must reconsider what bodies are, what they’re made of, how it is they take up the space they take up, and what happens when they die. And we must consider not just our bodies, but the bodies throughout the collection – which are often animal bodies.

It turns out that bodies are made of all the things the world is made of – the hoopoe’s crest feathers almost merge with the ‘terracotta / of the low roof tiles’ (‘The Hoopoe at the execution, Villebois’) and in ‘The melted bell’ the broken village represents the broken bodies that once lived and moved here –­

Lives can rupture like window glass


Like the crushed core of a church bell,
the seemingly empty is shown
to have once been silk, quartz, or well water.

Kelly demonstrates through his visceral imagery that everything becomes something else, that bodies are infinitely prone to change and transformation. The horror of ‘Making a Bodhran’ is redeemed by the promise of music, the mythical transformation in ‘The theory of the mark’ seems entirely credible, and in ‘Antler growth’ we witness the desire of the human to grow into and inhabit the power of an animal body.

‘Reincarnation’, ‘Back to sea’ and ‘The Kyoto Treaty’ touch on the crossovers between spiritual and physical bodies, exploring ideas of haunting and returning.

In the end, Kelly shows a reverence for all material, all bodies. In this powerful collection he accepts and welcomes the changes bodies undergo, rejoicing in the many forms of matter.