Sphinx eight striperCrystal Clear Creators, 2012    £4.00

Reviewed by Ross Kightly, Fiona Sinclair and James Roderick Burns

Ross Kightly:
The first thing to say is that it's a lovely-looking job of production—evocative, appealing, well-designed cover and good typography on excellent paper.

Then you step inside and find some very fine poetry indeed. There’s a lot to like here and little, if anything, to feel negative about. The rhythms are well-sprung and carry the sense along with ease; without quoting whole poems, this can be difficult to illustrate, but the ending of the first poem, 'Rose', is a good place to try:

Their murmurs and breath
float from open lips

his a perfect miniature
of her own sleep-slackened rose.

There’s a considerable range of interests and concerns: the poet's own Italian ancestry provides material for several moving poems such as 'Arm Wrestling with Nonno' where the poet’s grandfather, the "alpine soldier of the first war" is confined to a wheelchair with

his demijohns of red turning
to vinegar under the stairs
as he sipped Orangina.

The details in all poems are carefully-selected and beautifully managed, whether we’re in Italy, England, a metaphorical Zen garden, or the mind of La Gioconda meditating about the other aspects of being Leonardo's subject, and ending in

..........the landfill beneath a green hill
where my bones lie ploughed.

For me, perhaps the best and most moving of all the poems is 'Instant Karma':

The office cleaner sings beautifully and in Hindi.
I ask her what her song means.

'The Lord says, I will give you what you want
when the time is right.'

She leaves a world bright with belief,
the mopped floor under my feet,

the emptied bin of me.

So, there's the entire poem. I love the delicate balance of acceptance and reserve in those last lines.

More, please, Roy Marshall.

 

Fiona Sinclair:
The poems in this collection seem effortlessly constructed. The style is spare and resembles oriental verse. The subject matter is broadly that of love, the past, and the superiority of nature over man-made technology.

The most touching love poems centre around three generations of men: the persona’s son, an older man I take to be his grandfather and himself.  ‘Inheritance’ reinforces the link between generations. Here the narrator recalls a simple event of observing the older man caressing  “an oak framed table”. The two men then share a look as they recall to mind the day they lifted it “from a roof rack into family history”.

I found “Dandytime” the most endearing poem, focusing on the father/son relationship. The simple description of the pair picking dandelion clocks reveals the father’s love, not in high-flown words but in the act of spending time with the boy where “not a single clock will be passed without being blown’’. Nonetheless, the poem carries several meanings. The first stanza refers to “His gift to me,/ the long forgotten tempo/ of a boy’s life.” In the pleasure of spending an afternoon free from the constraints of adult life, the character remembers the freedom of his own childhood. In the phrase “altering fates as we go”, there is, however, a hint of darkness, much like Blake’s Songs of Experience, and we get a sense that the child’s life cannot continue like this .

This longing for the simpler world of youth re-emerges in poems such as ‘Ghost Walk’ and ‘The River Swimmers’. They describe a childhood in Northamptonshire where children had both a physical and imaginative freedom rarely found now. In ‘The River Swimmers’, the thrill of swimming with otters and finding tadpoles ends with the arresting image of the boys becoming “of us one river matter”. ‘Ghost Walk’ revisits a childhood playground now converted into new apartments. The  ‘ghosts’ include memories of Tommy Allen’s sweetshop with its “bell ringing”, reminding us vividly of such charming bygone shops.

Recollection of simpler times expands into a focus on modern technology. In ‘Hawk’s Eyes’ we’re reminded that nature in most instances is a far better engineer than man. The examples of nature’s expertise build in momentum, starting from a modest “wide angle” to the epitome of man-made observation, the “thermal image”.

‘Arachnology’, a splendid new word to me, celebrates the spider. This time the skill of the creature is extolled in human terms (“Hydraulic sprinter”, “rigger of hammocks‘’) and includes my favourite lines of the collection:

and fondles the air as if to check
an infallible hold over gravity.

 

James Roderick Burns:
Though nicely produced, with consistently impressive layout, typography and graphic elements, this pamphlet is less than consistent in its content.  Some of the poems match its pleasing physical feel: robust but subtle, filled with real thought and feeling, and working to good effect beyond the sometimes narrow confines of poetry. ‘Records on the Bones’, for instance, fits this description—a poem underpinned by an extraordinary footnote (explaining that in fifties Russia, X-ray sheets were pressed into service as jazz flexi-disc records) but not overshadowed by this explanation. The verse itself is tight and clean, charged with the kind of fizzing energy one imagines surged through the buyers of the original records:

grooves cut into opaque femurs,
hair-lined metatarsals and wrists,
furrows on fields of cranium, long since gone to ground

Equally good is ‘Wessex Wood’, a brief counterpoint of living and dying in the countryside, where the poet observes on finding a picked-over fox corpse at the end of a trail of flowers, “death has come to steal a breath/ from the mouth of spring”.  There is, as the editor of the pamphlet notes, “an unforced lyricism, a layering and compression”, in such poems.

Some elements of the collection, however, seem to me to fall short of this ideal. ‘Rose’, a promising description of the poet’s newborn son confounding his expectations (perhaps hopes?) of his Italian background resurfacing, rises to a crescendo halfway through the natural run of the idea, then drops off; other poems can disappoint in different ways.  ‘Convergence, Divergence’ indulges a tendency to windy abstraction (“the slide of words to become an eclipse”) that the poet would do well to nip in the bud, and in the opposite direction, ‘Perfect’ jacks up the poetic register beyond what the poem can bear.  Does a tap really emit a “keening howl” on being shut off?

In a longer volume these elements would matter less. Perhaps Writing East Midlands could produce a full collection, and rectify this?