Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Nine Arches Press, 2010    £5.00

sphinx seven striper

Reviewed by Rory Waterman, Rob A Mackenzie and Helena Nelson

Rory Waterman:
The back-cover blurb of this collection promises that it is "acutely observed, streetwise and bittersweet". Perhaps this is unsurprising, for at its centre (literally) are a number of poems about a family of fictional gangsters. However, the collection begins with the undoubtedly bittersweet but unfortunately metrically-awkward villanelle 'Fox', which has very little to do with gangsters:

     she will not rise in case of heavy tread,
     breathes in, lets out the longest sigh.
     Dream deep; sleep soft, pale amber head.

It is hard to get much from a poem that is clearly fighting tooth and nail to fit a tricky form, the repetends existing because they must. But things improve.

Goddard is either a strikingly good poet or a strikingly bad one, and this collection is studded with occasional small gems. Flashes of singular imagination-'a flame glimmers in the eye socket/ like a prayer in the nave of a church', for example-remind a reader to take even the bad bits seriously: Goddard is certainly not a phoney. She is rather good at observing how things are, at sharing universal feeling without being piecemeal:

                             I'm bothered by
     the grey-black tapestry of graveyard there.

     New oblongs are appearing each week-a
     slow fall of dominoes down to the river.

Perhaps the first thing to say about 'The Sopranos Sonnets'-ten short poems in which the characters of the eponymous US mafia television series either talk or are addressed by a narrator-is that they are not sonnets, unless any poem of fourteen lines, split into octave and sestet and finished with a rhyming couplet, is automatically a sonnet. Not that this matters. The second is that, whilst occasionally deft and witty, most of these poems say almost exactly what one might have expected them to say, but in language the characters themselves would never use. Thus, the poem from Meadow, 'Tony's feisty daughter', as Goddard's 'Cast List' has it, begins: "A few bad nights I woke crying, dreaming/ you were a dad in the text-book sense". Acute observation just isn't enough. This is emotionally unconvincing, and in that respect it typifies the sequence. Similarly, when the speaker says to Christopher, 'one of Tony's heavies', "I understand why you chose killing-/ it can be done like fixing up a shelf", the effect-on this reader, at least-is not one of startling recognition. Maybe I've just not done enough killing.

More convincing, by far, are the few poems rooted in a less distant emotional experience, such as the moving 'Fairy Lights' near the end of the pamphlet. Never mind, for now, the context; suffice it to say that the speaker sees an old photograph

     with you on the lawn. There is a ring
     of sun caught in one of your curls, I reach out,
     thread my finger through, hold it there.

This is a superb poem, but to explain why would be to ruin it. Perhaps this collection deserves your five pounds, after all.

Rob A Mackenzie:
First of all, I advise potential readers to bypass the truly awful villanelle that opens this pamphlet. The repeating lines are ponderous, the tone nineteenth century, a couple of lines bordered on the abysmal. I could go on, but doing so would give an overly negative slant to this review of a pamphlet that actually has a fair bit going for it.

Secondly, a disclaimer: I have never seen The Sopranos. I had to rely on Roz Goddard's helpful note and character-sketches to orientate myself around the ten poems based on the series, each centring on a specific character.

The ten sonnets have no metre and are unrhymed, apart from a rhyme in the final couplet. My feeling was that the rhymed couplet wasn't the best decision. The anticipated closing crescendo usually promised more than it delivered. Perhaps fans of the show will delight in their shared recognition of the aging Corrado's desperate desire to remain feared, and the boss Tony's lust after his beautiful therapist, but the portraits generally seemed unsurprising- character traits I would expect to find in a well-directed gangster saga. The two I liked best were the first and the last, the only two in which the poet herself makes an appearance. The latter is a meditation on Adriana, who shopped Tony to the FBI and was murdered in retaliation:

     I couldn't shake her gold curls, long French nails,
     her out-of-placeness in the woods, her plea. 
     Lines of words are slackened telegraph wires
     the guns stay quiet, red leaves mimic fire.

This reaction to innocence caught up in a virtually incomprehensible level of brutality is captured well by those images. The poet is pottering around in her garden, a million miles from Mafia killings, and yet the connection is strongly achieved.

The Sopranos sonnets constitute less than half the pamphlet. I enjoyed several of the other poems. 'What do you see in David Tress?' contains some great writing, inspired by a surreal picture, and begins:

    There is a new order here. You can make out
    the wrinkle from where it came.

    A skull shouldered by worms
    is pushed up through mulch to face the world.

The next poem, 'Sunday Afternoon' hooked me in with its terrific opening phrase, "The help-line is on auto", and kept me reading by its eerie depiction of empty car parking spaces, "how I feel rubbed out// by the elsewhere of people."

Roz Goddard comes up with plenty of interesting phrases, images and ideas. Now and again, she could have chopped a line or two-the final line of the otherwise excellent 'I Want To Be An Angel' is anticlimactic, and the sudden reference to an Archbishop's speech within a love poem, 'Drawing Him at Fifty', interrupted the poem's flow of ideas-but this is a pretty good dŽbut. It may even convince some readers to buy the complete Sopranos DVD box-set. Who says poetry makes nothing happen?

Helena Nelson:
The 'Sopranos Sonnets' are, according to the back cover, at the "heart" of this collection. They comprise "ten sonnet-portraits inspired by the television series about a dysfunctional mafia boss and his family".

For me, although the ten Soprano poems are set roughly in the middle of the pamphlet (six ordinary poems precede them; seven follow), they did not form the 'heart'. They are entertaining, a bit different - neat idea, but I didn't fall for them. In fact, some aspects - in particular the way the final couplet often rhymed when the rest did not - put me off.

There were other poems I liked much better in this very nicely presented publication, poems that presented themselves in a much more understated way but had distinctive character of their own. 'Sunday Afternoon', for example: it's a poem about feeling life is not about much at all, about the central character feeling "rubbed out // by the elsewhere of people". Negative feelings beautifully communicated.

And 'I Want To Be An Angel' feels like a truly necessary poem, a record of something that really happened between (I think) an adult and a child in a classroom, a child who was not having a good experience of childhood. It's a poem I would go back to.

There is much written these days by poets faced with aging parents. It's the demographic of our time. But 'Mother' is a star addition to this genre: "We invented our own language, / we are written on each other's skin".

In fact, nearly all the non-Soprano poems in the pamphlet, with the exception of the opening villanelle, strike me as striking, interesting, good quality writing. Roz Goddard doesn't write lightly. For that reason alone, she is well worth reading.