Of Ghosts and Folds: Call in the Crash Team by LYR

The music seems to fold around the words. That was my principal response as I was listening to Call in the Crash Team, the debut album from LYR, a collaboration between poet laureate Simon Armitage, musician Richard Walters and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Pearson.

The interaction between spoken-voice-sounds, which carry precise meanings, and music-sounds, which carry more nebulous meanings (to my ears, I mean, a non-musician), is one I find interesting. Sung words seem deliberately to emulate the quality of music, they want to be one with it, to become a feature of a single body created by the sounds made by all the other instruments in the piece combined. They may aspire to be a striking feature, perhaps the most attractive of all, but part of a whole nonetheless. Spoken words are different; they are proud of their difference, they seem to know that they are the body of the piece, that the music, however subtle, nuanced, and expressive, exists for the benefit of the words – to give them colour, warmth, individuality. Music is like a coat wrapped around spoken words. Musicians will disagree I imagine, but this is how it seems to me from the perspective of poetry.

The coat is an apt metaphor given that one of the pieces in Call in the Crash Team (I’m going with pieces because songs surely by definition must be sung), called ‘Greatcoat’, uses the long, heavy coat of a dead man to build a rather sinister picture of his life and character in vague and sometimes surreal terms:

Under its weight you’re buried alive,

under its wing the raven flies.

But I’m ditching you, brother, dropping you off

on the piss-stained steps of a charity shop.

These words are the body of the piece and the simple strings which break out into an electronic beat as the poem progresses are the coat that hangs and folds around them. I say these words, but it’s not the words as you see them above, rather as they are uttered in the recording by our poet-laureate in his well-known, measured northern tones. This is perhaps another reason why the words are amplified above the music: listening to Simon Armitage is like watching Robert Downey Jnr: whoever he’s playing you’re acutely aware that it’s him. And this of course double-edged – there’s a thrill in watching Iron Man, but if you’re after the subtleties of character acting, you’re watching the wrong film. This is not a criticism of Armitage (or Robert Downey Jnr for that matter) it’s just a fact of super-stardom; and if UK poetry has a super-star, it’s Simon Armitage. An actor reading the lines might have made them meld with the music a little more, but that would have created a very different album, and of course Armitage has always been famous for his strong and distinctive poetic voice, with his actual voice delivering the lines being one of the things which has over the years made his live performances so deservedly popular; it is also one of the pleasures of this album. So, on reflection perhaps we should think of a better metaphor for than the man in the coat.

More apt may be to say that the music is the weather, or the atmosphere (I was trying to avoid the word, but hey), that the spoken words of the poems walk through. I still say it folds around them but perhaps more dynamically, like the rush of cars and buffeting air folds around the “Central Reservation Man” in the bleak in-between hinterland of ‘Urban Myth #91’:

Tramping Britain’s middle lane

between the triple carriageways.

Tightrope-walking the thin line

between the barricades.

Or it folds and flaps like the wind that brings the trains to a stop in ‘Leaves on the Line’ (a strange and startling poem that makes a child’s folk rhyme of commuter boredom):

Till Leaf Man come

How long, how long?

Or it hangs and  swirls, mist-like, around the very words of these largely rhymed pieces with their lyrically regular rhythms, verse/chorus structures, and Armitagean characterisations; as in ‘The First Time’ (a depressive’s reminiscence of first love and love’s first failure) :

Did you marry that chump with the fags and the cash

And the clapped out Ford and the copper’s moustache…

…Call it the first time,

call it the last time,

call me a dead beat

for slicing up dead meat

There are ghosts all over the place in this album, in that central reservation (wraith-like if not a full-on ghost), in a bathroom doorway (from where a dead woman watches her widower husband get ready, possibly, to go on a first date since her death), and in the sound from the “diamond on vinyl” of a record player still spinning as the police discover the hanging body of a suicide (apparently Ian Curtis of Joy Division). And where there are not ghosts, there are fading memories, lost moments and failed relationships – absences reported or represented in the voice of a character who is only half there themselves. As I think about it now, I wonder if this is one of the reasons the music works well with Armitage’s voice, because as well as enfolding it, it blurs its edges. His voice alone would be a clearly-defined figure, sharply contrasting with a blank background, but the music spreads the figure out, dissipates it, not so much providing a background as pulling at the words so that they become thinner, opaquer, or chameleonesque, more of the background itself. More ghostly.

I’ve shifted here slightly from my original comment that spoken words are proud of their difference, but not so much. I think they are, but maybe hearing music at the same time as words are spoken causes a blurring of meaning-boundaries, and this works ideally for the atmosphere of loneliness, loss, bitterness, and grief that LYR are aiming at with this album.

This makes it sound like a very depressing album, and it would be if it were not (a) leavened by Armitage’s trademark northern drollery (“Stands up on its own when you’re not around, / smells like a dog, smells like it drowned” – ‘Greatcoat’), (b) softened by his almost Beatlesy successions of half-surreal images (“paper-clip bracelet / crucifix pendant / cinnamon toothpaste / chewing-gum pavement / liquorice protest / dragonfly heartbeat” – ‘Zodiac T-shirt’) and (c) lightened by his amusingly peculiar – and sometimes sinister – character colours (e.g. ‘Never Good With Horses):

You said a man with his own telescope

isn’t especially strange,

and to be a collector of doll’s houses

is fine for a guy of your age

But the above-mentioned leavening, lightening and softening is also a result of the music, about which there is nothing remotely depressing. I find Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson’s music beautiful, evocative, and sometimes  mesmeric; I’ve focused on how I feel it interacts with the words rather than how it actually sounds in this blog post simply because I don’t know much about music technically and I could say little about it beyond bland Radiohead comparisons – but, to coin a phrase, I know what I like,  and the movements, melodies and motifs are clearly very skillfully structured to achieve and emphasise all the effects I’ve mentioned above. The nuances of shading that the music brings to the spoken words I’ll have to leave to a reviewer with a better-trained ear and more music-rich vocabulary than I have.

Suffice to say, though, Call in the Crash Team is worth a listen.

The Man in the Tunnel: Flint by Adriana Díaz Enciso


If you are impatient with amateur philosophy, I’d recommend skipping to the second paragraph of this review; I’m including some initial pondering because my admiration of Flint – An Elegy and a Book of Dreams, an e-pamphlet by the Mexican poet and translator Adriana Díaz Enciso, takes me back to some fundamentals about my own thoughts on language, which I would like to sketch out but which may seem unnecessary, especially to anyone better versed in the philosophies of language and literature than I am – I know this kind of self-indulgence can be frustrating in a blog review; so don’t get irritated, move on. 


One of the most basic elements of language, as many have said before me, is that it puts one thing beside and in place of another. A word sits beside a real-world object or action, and for the purposes of communication replaces it, their proximity allowing understanding to be carried over to the former from the latter. Once a system based on this metaphorical connection has been established, abstraction can follow; and human (as opposed to animal) thought can begin. It is also then that a line between pure functionality and pure aesthetic beauty can be drawn and discourses can be set out along such a line. All uttered or written language exists on this line. Text messages, screamed curses, romantic novels, pop songs, conversations about the purchase of office stationary, and prayers, are all overlapping categories on this same line. There are many types of category, some tightly defined and others vague; and two of the vaguest categories, ones which between them stretch the full length of the line between pure functionality and pure beauty, are prose and poetry. Where (and whether) we see these two overlapping is both a personal matter and a moot point, but if all language is metaphorical then one way of distinguishing between poetry and prose might be to notice that poetry tends to centralise, emphasise, and problematise the metaphor; while prose tends not to, preferring to keep metaphor as part of its inner communicative workings. This is not a hard and fast rule, there is richly metaphorical prose and prosaic poetry, but considering where a piece of writing lies on the function/beauty line, along with the extent to which its use of metaphor is, let’s say, surprising and complex, might help sometimes when you’re looking at prose that feels like poetry (Ali Smith’s work is an example of this for me, as is Olga Tokarczuck’s) or poetry which feels like, as the saying goes, chopped-up prose. 


The reason I’ve started this review with the above prelude is that Díaz Enciso describes Flint in its brief introduction as ‘genreless’ and while I can see why she does so, I disagree: Flint is prose poetry. Though it takes many of the features of prose, and as a rather beautiful expression of death, grief, and hope for life it may lie about halfway along the function/beauty line, its use of metaphor (what it puts beside and in place of what) is pure poetry.  

Flint takes as its focal point a dream in which the poet (and we know it is the poet and not a constructed ‘speaker’ in this case because Díaz Enciso takes the trouble to include a prose essay after the prose poem describing the events leading up to and surrounding its creation) meets and walks along “some passage with all semblance of light dulled” hand in hand with the lead singer of The Prodigy, Keith Flint. This leads on to other vivid dreams which, as Díaz Enciso is a Blakeian, we might even call visions. Flint had, shortly beforehand, committed suicide by hanging (although the coroner’s verdict remained open), and, though the poet knew very little about him, the barely contained insanity of his performances and his carefully constructed modern-devil persona (“imp, infernal dervish, entrancing in your dance of rage, though polished, raw”) work as a conduit for her contemplation of the deaths of two of her own friends – most poignantly the Mexican musician Armando Vega Gil who, very shortly afterwards, committed suicide in the same way as Flint. The tunnel from the Firestarter video becomes the passage in the dreams – a link between life and death, sorrow and joy, friends and strangers, and ultimately between what is said and what cannot be said. One of the glories of this work is the way it takes away the menacing, claustrophobic tunnel to hell gently (temporarily perhaps) from The Prodigy and replaces it with a ‘passage’ which takes the reader, through the movement in its etymology, towards hope, not hell.  

The metaphorical power of Keith Flint himself and the tunnel/passage is intense. And this iconic figure of nineties youth-angst is juxtaposed with the poet, a literary woman whose age is not mentioned but who we assume from context and, if you like, from googled photos, is middle-to-late-middle-aged. In life, Flint tapped the figurative potential of his name to create a metaphor of himself (instability: rage, insanity, frustration etc), and I think one of the things that I like about this work is that Díaz Enciso respects that, builds on it and reciprocates by turning herself into an opposing – or perhaps I should say complimentary – metaphor (stability: quiet reflection, contained grief, ageing and acceptance). 

Alongside these two unlikely companions a third surprising metaphor is developed, and eventually becomes the binding force of the whole piece – “Look – Spring blossoms. Dots of white and gentle pink swaying in the harsh wind beneath leaden storm clouds”. In a sense, this traditional symbolism of renewal and hope should not work simply because it is so, for want of a better word, unoriginal. But it does work, in my view, because it is originally used: startlingly positioned beside (and therefore in place of) the two already startlingly-positioned metaphors of Keith Flint and the poet. The imagery of springtime blossom grows naturally from the words spoken about Flint in tribute after his death, which are in stark contrast to the ‘firestarter’ image: “Generous. Beautiful. So kind.” In fact, the only section of the piece to be presented in what might be seen as a ‘poem’ format is a collection of such words, which describe the man himself. But the blossom is also problematised when Flint is called “(a) dangerous artist: he who holds in bare hands the many-edged flower” – so the hope offered here does not necessarily come without cost. Flint at times appears to personify a redemption of which he himself can have no part, Christ-like he is “offered up: self-inflicted, scream in flesh” to a “snarled humanity in its thousands” who “sway as one”. And so as a simultaneous embodiment of both Christ and the Devil, Flint stands as a public symbol of human strength and human frailty. How far this can be extended to include a private symbolism of the poet’s friends and family is hard to tell; Díaz Enciso mentions her own father only in order to categorically deny the existence of any such extension (“No: I have nothing whatever to say to him”) and there is nothing to suggest we should not take her at her word here; although we may pause long enough to acknowledge that the music of poetry echoes in wells deeper than any of us can know. 

Flint is built around a central question, one that is at the heart of grief and at the heart of life: “How do we give hope to the dead?” Because we are all, in the end, ‘the dead’, and because we are all strangers to each other (it is only a matter of degree), this extended prose poem is about finding the passages that lead us towards each other, so that we might “commune”, or (to use a noun phrase which carries more specifically religious connotations), so that we might partake of “communion”: a wonderful word, which Díaz Enciso uses in relation to the crowd at a rock concert which later becomes the crowd at a funeral. It is in this communion (which, more than a coming together, is a sharing of intimacies) that hope in the form of Spring is found. Not for nothing does the poet comment at Flint’s funeral “The world is, today, an orchard”. 

I suspect, because of its unusual form and perhaps because of its use of a real-life deceased  individual with relatives and presumably an estate, that this may be a pamphlet which continues to find full publication elusive, but I hope I am wrong because it is a profoundly moving piece of work which deserves a wide readership. Anyone who has a mind open to the creative and generative potential of placing one thing beside and in place of another, should take a look at what this e-pamphlet has on offer. 

Flint – An Elegy and a Book of Dreams is available from Adriana Díaz Enciso’s website, here. 

The poet will donate one third of any proceeds to the National Suicide Prevention Alliance and another third to the NHS. 

41 Couplets for JK Rowling

winding river

Nature doesn’t draw straight lines,

although it feels like that sometimes.

I don’t end where you begin.

Myths of blood and myths of skin

serve to help us reproduce

but they’re open to abuse.

Borders set with a ruler

make us stupider and crueler

because that’s how we organise

ourselves into warring tribes.

Our biology’s the same,

it creates a two-team game,

a you and I out of a we,

so male and female’s all we see

when we’re gradients of both,

the ratios changing with growth

and age.


              The point is language,

the tool we use to manage

our affairs, such a primitive

weapon, allows us to live

in this bewildering forest

only by slicing as it must

through impenetrable tangles

(unfathomable angles

our brains’ geometry must lop),

otherwise, we come to a stop.


Or we might take the birds-eye view

as gods and politicians do,

and see a certain tract of land

with a river in the sand

twisting out a natural border

between two states. There’s order

in this meandering split,

‘I know where I live, this is it,

you’re on your side and I’m on mine’

we say. But people near the line,

where there’s some kind of bow or bend,

may be closer where they stand

to the centre of the other

state than their sister or brother

on the river’s farther shore.


There’s no universal law

or diktat of clear division –

that’s a human imposition.

All the problems which arise

from this (the almost-truths, pure lies

and inconvenient facts

around feminism) detract

nothing from this central theme

that contrary to how it seems

we construct ourselves from words,

make boundaries, more or less absurd,

just so we can understand

some small part of this strange land

called existence we’re walking through.


Accepting we in place of you

and I is one part of the work

(the slow, careful, magical work)

we do as writers and readers –

outside of social media’s

toxic, real-time, hunting ground –

of listening to the startling sound

that plays in our one human voice.

We might not know we make a choice

but we do, each time we engage

in this enterprise called language,

which frees even as it restricts

and allows within its edicts

us to see a little further

than the biology of other.


Maybe one day you’ll see these lines,

or else you never will, that’s fine –

an amateur with time to spare

has no claim on a billionaire

whose own is no doubt dearly bought

and likely has already thought

through everything addressed above;

but I will post them here with love,

as evidence of my refrain

to all who find them in their brain:

it’s not true that we stand apart –

one doesn’t stop where others start.



Subverting the hipster: AK Blakemore’s Shia LaBeouf


It’s not easy to get inside the poems in AK Blakemore’s new pamphlet Shia LaBeouf (Makina Books). Individually they are difficult: surreal, fragmentary, imagistic, and in some cases almost haiku-like in their brevity and the way the images are spliced. Take for example the following (the second in a sequence of poems whose name is a symbol I can’t find on my computer, kind of like a >) transcribed here in its entirety:


single ‘dead swan’ 

in white medical-grade silicone 

 Perhaps a found poem, perhaps a found ‘idea’, or maybe a complete figment of Blakemore’s imagination, this juxtaposition over three lines micro-narrates a movement from capitalism to nature to technology, one echoed and united in the progression of line ending sounds -ing, -an, -one from the back to the front of the mouth, and which leaves with the reader a sense of unease and fascination at the idea that you might be able to purchase the plastinated corpse of a swan somewhere (and confusion: is the bird dissected and preserved? Who would want that, and why? Is it Hirstian art? Wouldn’t white silicone obscure it from view? Or is this a symbol of natural beauty being obscured by blank modernity and commercialised? And what about swans and myth, and royalty…) – but the reader is left moving on from the poem with nothing particular to do with this sensation. A later brilliant phrase, “the atrocious swan of love” (“may”), indicates that this image is actually a reflection on a relationship which is either souring or over but which won’t go away; we can never be sure what the poem is about and we never need to be. This doubt and multiplicity is part of Blakemore’s special talent, I think, and something which she develops further in this pamphlet than in previous collections. To understand what it is she is up to, we could do worse than go to the poet herself, in a review piece she wrote for Poetry London in 2018: “the best poetry for me represents an unravelling of the world from the sharp point of an individual consciousness”, she says, going on to describe “(a) flash of ultraviolet, which, rather than reproducing the lived experience in edifying primary colours, brings the stain, the seed, the subcutaneous bruising into sharp relief against darkness or obscurity”. Individually, then, these poems are such “sharp points”, mystifying (but tight, condensed) images evoking the mind behind Blakemore’s speaker’s ‘voice’, they are the psychic stains, seeds and bruises whose meaning only begins to “unravel” when, like the string of pearls on the pamphlet’s cover, they are seen as a whole rather than as individuals. Tellingly, although precious stones and crystal are mentioned a number of times, the only direct mention of pearls is in the following stanza from “Love’s Easy Tears”:


how to hide a cigarette burn 

with a string of pearls. 

 This could refer to self-harm, abuse or an accident, but either way these jewels conceal a wound rather than display it to the world and at the same time offer advice on how to go about such concealment. But here the hiding of a scar itself becomes an act of protest and self-affirmation, and the instruction on how to do so reads as an expression of solidarity; it is a finger held up to the world. For me, as in Fondue (ORB, 2018), this is Blakemore developing some of her central themes – female alienaton, lifting strength out of weakness, agency out of passivity, and voice out of non-voice. As she writes in the next stanza from the same poem:

 if given licence 

my own frailty 

will become voluble – 


 So there is a subversion of  the ‘natural glow’ here which I’m tempted to link back to Blakemore’s “ultraviolet” comment in the Poetry London article as a form of ‘non-standard’ or ‘other’ light, and one which is in direct contrast to the more obvious, everyday sunlight which lands illuminates “a fat bee on a bright brick wall” (“may”). The luminescence the speaker aspires to here is not obvious, and it is not necessarily there for all to see, but it emanates from within these words/pearls/worlds, these “sharp points” within which the speaker’s life appears distilled and contained.

 These poems come from a place where intense introspection and creativity meet, and as such Shia LaBeouf is the perfect eponym for the pamphlet (it’s also a good joke, given LaBeouf’s history of plagiarism, that Blakemore is here ‘plagiarising’ – in a manner of speaking – his whole puplic persona for the purposes of her own creative work). She writes in the titular poem:

 if you’re reading this, Shia, you’ve an advocate and friend in me 

 By expressing solidarity with this ‘artistically tormented’, ‘troubled’, ‘edgy’, ‘difficult’ (etc.) character, the speaker is claiming not only creative but temperamental kinship. Here Blakemore might have been open to the charge of basking in LaBeouf’s reflected 21st century beatnik glow (again, the glow) were it not for the fact that destabilizing the white male grip on such identities is at the centre of her project. Although the word beatnik has fallen into archaism, or worse wilted into a sort of bland bohemianism, the related term hipster is very much in vogue as a commodified and middle-class white male signifier. In that respect it remains much as it was when Norman Mailer coined – or comandeered – the term in the late fifties to bolster his  (problematic, to say the least) concept of The White Negro; it is just that sixty years of late-stage capitalism has robbed it of any bite it once had. And while the race aspect of the hipster is not Blakemore’s to tackle, the Mailerian masculinity aspect most certainly is. And I can’t help thinking that the woman-shunning, homosocial-hipster Beat Generation writers are not far from some of these poems. Does Blakemore indirectly reference that arch-Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg in ‘the reading’, another three-line poem, which more obviously takes a swipe at William Faulkner (and, I think, at his poem ‘A Poplar’), but whose first line “shivering cock!”, for me, brings to mind Part Two of Howl? “(G)ranite cocks!” blurted Ginsberg as he flailed in a sea of exclamation marks and ‘Molochs’. Blakemore shuns attention-seeking male prolixity in favour of concise ‘it’s-there-if-you-know-how-to-find-it’ female complexity (her line is mysterious/humorous: is the cock shivering because it’s flaccid and cold or erect and hot? And am I the only reader who hears Robin from the 1960s TV Batman in this palm-thumping cry?). Anyway, while LaBeouf himself is a refreshing change in some respects from your standard Hollywood career-icons, he is ultimately just an emulation of the hipster, a 60-year-old subversion. However, in her close psychological dissection of contemporary female isolation and difference, by associating her speaker with Shia LaBeouf (and I should say, by placing him so close to the Faulkner poem reference – I notice his name is also identically stress-patterned with ‘shivering cock’!) Blakemore is subverting the age-worn concept of ‘the hipster’ itself, claiming a once-male preserve and creating a new space from which to express a different experience. While the Beat Gen Men said what they wanted to say about society and masculinity in thousands upon thousands of words, AK Blakemore expresses 21st century alienation, for women, in just a few well-chosen ones.

Shia LaBeouf is available for pre-order now from Makina Books, here

Disclosure: I asked for and received a pdf review copy of this pamphlet free of charge.

Music & Complexity: Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten by Oisín Breen



Oisín Breen’s debut volume (‘collection’ really being the wrong word for this 95-page, three-act meditation on memory, love and loss) presents the reader with an extremely enjoyable and sometimes profound series of reflections, cogitations, lyrical flourishes and interpretive frustrations. It is hard not to be impressed with Breen’s utter rejection of contemporary poetic trends and the skill with which he maintains what might be described as a High Romantic diction. It could easily come across as pastiche yet finds a voice of its own as much through bloody-mindedness as anything else; the poet relentlessly works his fulsome descriptions (“Memories, stilled and muted harmonia, / silk-heavy in the russet wind, / like sinuous leaves with ice-cracked spines, / and a timbre of slowness”) alongside moments of tender simplicity (“Tending your grave, / I find it as pretty as ever”), surprising and effective similes (“What maker stretched out melancholy, / like a fattened pig’s skin, / into a parchment of minor regrets?”) and disarmingly open revelations of past cruelties and misdemeanors (“I hid because there was a kid nearby I knew. / We all called him retarded. / I was bullied too, but hating him was a guilty treat. / I was happy to feel like everyone else.”) to create an idiom that is very much his own. It is an idiom that will put some off immediately and lose others along the way, but it is one which I find rewards a patient and sympathetic reading – or to give that a more metaphorical twist: you’ve got to allow yourself to be pulled along in the wake of Breen’s language or you’ll sink. 

 While the diction may be romantic the overall tone of Breen’s project is modernist, and as we move through the narrative triptych we encounter myriad literary, religious and folkloric allusions juxtaposed with shifts of register and scenes of contemporary Irish/Scottish life (which we are surely intended to assume are the poet’s own memories – this is how I take them at least) and all of this of course echoes with Joyce and Eliot – the pub scene at closing time deliberately conflates famous scenes from Ulysses and The Wasteland I think, and it is impossible not to relate the central voice to Leopold Bloom (the speaker even has a friend called Stephen!). But the density of allusion and religious reference is such that it was David Jones who kept coming to mind as I read this collection; and it was back to Jones’ not-always-unproblematic writings on poetry that my mind wondered as I read Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten. This, from his preface to The Anathemata, is worth reading with Breen’s poetics in mind:

…one of the efficient causes of which the effect called poetry is a dependent involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves that employment at an especially heightened tension. The means or agent is a veritable torcular, squeezing every drain of evocation from the word-forms of that language or languages. And that involves a bagful of mythus before you’ve said Jack Robinson – or immediately after.

If you are disinclined to agree with Jones on this, or to accept his idea that the language of the past exists in the present as ‘deposits’ which are there to be mined or collected (I’m not sure what verb Jones would use here) by poets, who can thereby access truths deeper than they will find on the surface alone, then you will be likely to run out of patience with Breen quite quickly. I have sympathy with this modernist view of poetry, although as I say it is not without problems and has a tendency to lead towards the political right of insular breeds with shared heritages and ethno-exclusivity. Breen’s work, I should be clear, shows no signs of taking any such sinister turn, but suffice to say the reader looking for succinct nuggets of pared-back poetry should look elsewhere.

As the title alone illustrates, Breen’s work is as much about the sound of words as their semantic value; in fact it might not be far off to say that the book is a re-balancing of words’ meaning with their musicality: in prose, the former is given primacy, in poetry the latter gains ground, but as to how much, that is the business of the poet, and it’s arguable that part of Breen’s project is to bring these two aspects of language into equilibrium – or even to position musicality as dominant. This resonates with the continual references to song throughout the book; the speaker refers to words and the stories they tell as a “brutal song”, “vital song”, “one song”, “song of meaning”, and “song of understanding”. And it is possible that in listening to the book read out loud (the hard copy apparently comes with a CD of Breen’s own reading) it would be possible to discern melodies and motifs which I have missed with my internal readings, and which may carry meanings in the same way that Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte carry meaning for musicologists.

Breen, according to an online biography, is also a student of Narratology, and one way to read Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten is as an experiment in narration. How far, Breen seems to ask, can I take readers out of the prosaic world of the text’s events (the story, or diegesis – i.e. a youngish man visits his father’s grave,  and goes drinking with his pals) and into the protagonist’s poeticised, stream-of-consciousness (the narrative – i.e. a youngish man mulls on life, experience, memory and grief, journeying towards some form of self-reconciliation and understanding) before the work’s sense of meaning starts to fall apart? To this extent, the work is an intriguing failure, in part because the momentum of the external story never builds sufficiently to carry the weight of the internal narrative, and partly because the characters (the deceased father, particularly, but also the friends, and the ‘she’ of the final movement) are all lost in the complexities and music of the narrator’s inner voice. We learn nothing about the narrator’s father, and the placing of flowers on his grave (though full of delightful irony – bringing to the dead the ‘life’ of cut flowers which will then wilt and die) is in the end just a stimulus for the narrator’s memories and musings – much like Proust’s madeleine. It would have been lovely to hear more about who this man was, and why he stimulates such intense rumination in his son. Is there some deeper unexpressed secret lying at the heart of the piece? That we do not learn the answer to this question was likely part of the poet’s plan, and now, as always with poetry, I dislike judgmental readings and am suspicious of the dictum that a work should be judged even ‘on its own terms’, because every critic (every reader) brings their own terms with them. But I will say this: I came away exhausted. Yes, exhilarated with the language, but also worn down by what reads like a 95-page Joycean epiphany.

But if Breen’s reach ultimately exceeds his grasp within these pages, it is because his aims are so lofty – I am reminded of Julian Barnes’ comment on the Michel Houellebecq novel Atomised, which, he said “hunts big game while others settle for shooting rabbits”. Much the same could be said of this volume, I think, and that Breen does not ultimately bag everything he aims for, does not detract from the great deal there is to enjoy and ponder in this book – and to look forward to with respect to this poet in the future.

You can buy Flowers, All Sorts In Blossom, Figs, Berries And Fruits Forgotten from Hybrid Press, here.

A Glimpse of What Hovers: Just a Moment by Ian House

house sunflowers

I’m sometimes a little suspicious of ekphrasis. I’m not sure why but I think it is related to a feeling I get that it is used for one of two reasons: either because the poet has run out of ideas of their own or they are showing off their knowledge and understanding of another artist’s work. A third reason might be that they are practising their own craft by tapping into the craft of another – there is nothing wrong with that of course, although it would seem more appropriate in a creative writing workshop than a published collection. I have similar suspicions about the use of extensive epigraphs and in-text allusion. A little cynical? Maybe. And I should say that as a poet I use ekphrasis, epigraphs and allusion as much as the next person, so it’s hypocritical too. Furthermore, there are countless examples of wonderful ekphrastic (and art- or artist-inspired) poetry online and in print, some of which I have blogged about before, for example this piece I wrote on Sasha Dugdale’s incredible ‘Welfare Handbook’ towards the end of last year. I mention my suspicions here only to acknowledge some of the prejudices I brought to my reading of Ian House’s New and Selected Poems, recently published by Two Rivers Press, and to add emphasis to the delight I found in having my suspicions in this case blown to smithereens.

To say that House’s poetry embraces ekphrasis does not do justice to what has clearly been a life’s project for him. His work, I think, transcends the very idea of ekphrastic poetry and finds instead an expression of the symbiosis of life and art. Yes, he describes visual works of art, as traditional ekphrasis would, and he does so beautfully, as in his central sequence of seven poems based on the paintings of Paul Nash ‘It Must Change’: e.g. “blazing yellows and oranges / intenser than all imagining / fierce as a fusion reactor / self-unsparing self-consuming / the sunflower hurtles downhill” from the sixth poem in the sequence (‘It Must Burn’). But many of his poems are not descriptions as much as contemplations and digressions, as in ‘Now You See It’, inspired by Ai Weiwei’s 1995 triptych ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ in which House recreates the heartbreaking descent towards the ground of a priceless work of art before questioning our reaction as viewers (“Couldn’t you admire the man / who had the balls…?”) and then proposing a way of understanding the problems surrounding Weiwei’s paradoxically iconoclastic artwork (“We… / wanted someone to tell us / … / that we share no genes with the millions / who’ve shattered statues, burned books.”). On other occasions, the artwork is used as a point of departure from which to bury into a moment or a relationship from the poet’s (perhaps I should say the speaker’s) past: “When I came across Magritte’s L’histoire centrale, / the long, dumb wail,” he writes in a poem called ‘L’histoire centrale’, “there was no reason on earth it reminded me / of you”. The irony here of course is that the painting clearly does remind the speaker of the ‘you’ and their perhaps brief moments together outside the Rudolfinum concert hall in Prague, and so Magritte’s depiction of a “woman with the grey cloth over her head” and her suitcase which may or may not contain “louche / camisoles, canaries, cinnamon (and an) odour / of excitable gunpowder” becomes charged with the unspoken sexuality of a ‘brief encounter’ and a certain film-noiresque danger (via German Expressionism) which allows House to suggest a depth to the speaker’s relationship – however brief – with his interlocutor, and a profundity to his regret, that could not have been achieved without his use of allusion and ekphrasis.

Even when casting back to his childhood in ‘The Harbingers’ the first of the ‘new’ poems (which take up a good two-thirds of this ‘new and selected’) House recalls an early experience at an outside performance of ‘As You Like It’ in which his ten-year-old self is alert to the “shiver of leaves” which anticipates Orlando’s arrival through the “twilight and greenwood”. He takes this moment as representative (at least “a hint of a sense”) of the engagement with art as a way of understanding the world which has, it seems, remained with him throughout his life. He describes it succinctly and beautifully as “a glimpse of what hovers, / of what’s beyond presence”; but then takes it further with a stanza which I think goes to the heart of his poetic project: “and may be disclosed / in the unforeseen moment / by a tree or a smile or a chair”. It is this movement from ‘tree’ (natural/non-human) to ‘smile’ (natural/human) to ‘chair’ (a combination of the natural/non-human with the natural/human resulting in something non-natural/non-human but paradoxically both natural and human, i.e. art) which I think speaks to a complexity in man’s relationship with art which, were it not so precisely described by House, would approach the Spiritual. He concludes the poem with a stanza that captures the purity and peace he finds in art which many might turn to religion in order to locate (“a glass of water, say, / simply that, a volume / limpid and still.”) The double-meaning of “volume”, of course, is not lost here.

Elsewhere, House engages with the life and work of artists as diverse as Baudelaire, Wallace Stevens, Ovid, Kazimir Malevich, Djambawa Marawili and Gogol. And what a pleasure it is to be introduced in some cases to creative minds you have never heard of before, and in others to be reintroduced as though for the first time.

As ever when writing a review it is more difficult to decide what to leave out than what to include, but there are two further aspects of House’s work I would be very remiss not to mention.

The first is that, for all this talk of art and ekphrasis, House also writes beautifully about nature, and often surprisingly aswell, particularly in the selection from 2014’s Nothing’s Lost (“How sexy bream are” he declares in ‘Silver Bream’, “industrious lap dancers / in slinky chainmail”!). This is illustrated also in the following stanza from ‘Peregrine’, which also displays the poet’s abilty to bring that viscral and startling vision of nature back to his central artistic theme, leaving us with a heightened sense of both:

Not for her the hawk’s swerve
to the tossed gobbet. She’ll biff
a rook like a bullet, grab and rip
like a machine, strip life
to the bone, like poetry.

The colloquial and dated ‘biff’ is the surprise here, but paired with the more traditional ‘bullet’ it evokes perfectly the precision and blunt power of a falcon’s mid-air attack, and a further surprise is to have the violence of this attack compared to poetry, “strip(ping) life / to the bone”; but that really is what poetry does, isn’t it?

My second point will probably already be clear from what I have said above, but it is worth stating overtly: these are poems of great technical skill which balance form and content extremely thoughtfully. To illustrate this I will return to ‘L’histoire centrale’ from Cutting the Quick (2005). The content I have already mentioned, but it is worth pausing over the way the rhyme scheme forms a sort of vertical bracket around the poem’s ‘central story’ i.e. the “me” and “you” which end the lines of the fifth (of ten) couplets. The “head” of line one is reflected back in the “lead” of line twenty, as the “tuba” of line two returns in the “rubber” of line nineteen; and then the ‘almost’ semi-rhyme (suitcase/louche) in the second couplet is set against the ‘almost’ visual rhyme (Prague/rouge) in the penultimate. Between these rhymes the cetral protagonists are cushioned on either side by lovely and imaginative slant-rhyming: odour/powder, centrale/wail, mine/rain, hall/swell, and Don Giovanni/alchemy. I submit that the rhyme structure of the poem protects a valued memory as though it were encased in the heart’s india-rubber, as “whispered” by the speaker’s partner by the “twinkly Vltava” in the final couplet.

And I would furthermore submit this poem (see in full below) as evidence that in taking a lifelong engagement with visual and literary art as inspiration, Ian House has created his own, quite astonishing, works of art.

L’histoire centrale

The woman with the grey cloth over her head,
one hand behind a tuba,

has no need of the reticent suitcase
and its cargo of, let’s say, louche

camisoles, canaries, cinnamon, its odour
of excitable gunpowder.

When I came across Magritte’s L’histoire centrale,
the long, dumb wail,

there was no reason on earth it reminded me
of you

plaiting your words with mine
as we watched the skirmishing rain

from the door of the Rudolfinum concert hall
while Brahms and Mahler’s swell

drained through talk of Don Giovanni,
Arcimboldo, Rosicrucian alchemy

to beer and the backstreets of Prague.
The streetlights splotched your rouge.

You whispered that the heart was india-rubber.
The twinkly Vltava was sheeted lead.

You can buy Just A Moment from Two Rivers Press, here.

Small Hopes: Island of Towers by Clarissa Aykroyd


There is a short poem towards the middle of Clarissa Aykroyd’s debut pamphlet Island of Towers which is called ‘Lighthouse’ and in which an island and its lighthouse are metaphors for a person sighing and sobbing in their sleep. In three brief couplets (the third separated from the first two by a couplet-sized blank space, perhaps indicating the eclipse between flashes from the lighthouse) we get a powerful impression that the sleeper is lost in their own darkness, one more profound than the dark of night or sleep. “Morning hasn’t come” we are told, as though it should be here by now but has failed to arrive. Whatever this sleeper’s darkness is, it remains despite the fact that “the lighthouse lifts so high, (and) the island / streams with light”.
This image of an island with a tower sending its searching light out into the unknown is not only towards the centre of the collection in terms of sequencing; it feels, in fact, as though each poem exists while briefly lit by some central illuminating force (the reader’s eyes? the poet’s pen?) before disappearing back into the mystery of the unknown. That is not to say that the poems are unmemorable, the opposite is true and some of the images are wonderfully startling, such as the “green-eyed cat /…crossing no-man’s land to me/delicately carrying a fish.” (“Leningrad Spy Story”), but that there is much in Island of Towers to imply a search for some kind of light (I read this, in line with the lighthouse metaphor, as the reflected light of the poet’s ruminations – I don’t find anything to imply that it is the Light of religion; the searched-for light seems more likely to stand for ‘tranquillity’ if not quite ‘understanding’). With each poem failing to reflect the desired light, the poet moves on to the next, until the final two poems ‘Stained Glass’ and ‘Wicklow Mountains After Rain’, which both shine vividly, glaringly almost, with “white gold light” and “brushstrokes of gold”. But there is, it seems, no revelatory sense of ‘seeing the light’ because even in these final poems the light is either illusory (“this is fire that lulls to sleep”) or overwhelming (“I tried to grasp it, ran out but lost it”). Light is also blinding (“light blinds dark in fathoms” – ‘An Eye, Open’) and possibly damaging, like a stain on the retina (“And this is leaving, carrying the flash/behind my eyes, into the dark outside.” – ‘Dakar’). And so ultimately, a sense of mystery remains. It may be that the short sequence of Sherlock Holmes poems (and I happen to know that Aykroyd is an enthusiastic Holmesian) are a nod towards the sense of joy and adventure inherent in trying to solve a possibly unsolvable mystery.
I said above that each poem fails to reflect the desired light, but this is not a failing of the poems as much as the effect of each one being part of an ongoing journey (and perhaps a circular one, as in the sad and dizzying ‘Carousel’). Indeed, almost all of the poems are inspired by, named after, or contain references to specific locations around the world but this could not be described as a Poetry of Place because the places described are shrouded in darkness, internalised as ‘dream-worlds’, or expressed in terms of the ‘not-quite-arrived’ or the ‘just-leaving’ (“island to island, stone to stone” – Night on Cook Street’) – and usually all of these at the same time. Looked at from one angle, the titular “island of towers” is Cairo (from the poem of that name), but it could equally stand for any of the cities, ancient and modern, that this pamphlet ‘visits’. It does not take too great a leap of imagination to see the buildings of a city as an island rising out of the surrounding flatness, and every city sends out its own light streaming into the darkness – both actual electric light and the metaphorical light of life and culture. But in a sense, and more interesting to me, every poem in the pamphlet is a little island in itself, each with its own faint source of light, and the poet/reader becomes like the ‘he’ of the first poem, ‘As though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul’ (presumably the poem’s dedicatee Ivo Machado), who “…had to fly into the storm because there was nothing but storm”, but who still found and expressed a sense of positivity for the future in all the darkness and despair, “small hopes, each a distant light” – these distant lights are stars, island towers, and poems.
To conclude this brief review, Island of Towers is a pamphlet which finds space, in its twenty-three short poems, to mystify and beguile with the beautiful surrealism of an “invisible rainforest” in a London Underground station where “a girl in a long black dress / has one hand uplifted” and on her finger a jewel, or “a ladybird/…stars her finger” while “Her green eyes bloom like gardens” (‘Northern Line’), and elsewhere to guide the reader, through exquisite word-choice over just seven lines, towards the life, work and tragic suicide of Paul Celan, in a poem which unostentatiously displays a profound connection with Celan and ends with the unforgettable image of an “…impossible bone spur on my heart” (‘In Paris’).
But I would recommend this pamphlet above all, in these months during which we are overwhelmed by COVID-19, for the distant lights it provides, the small hopes.

Island of Towers is available from Broken Sleep Books, here.

Clarissa Aykroyd blogs on various poetry matters, here, at The Stone and the Star.

Disclosure: I know the poet a little through Twitter and we have found that we agree on a number of poetry-related issues. If this affects any of the above review, I am unaware of it.

White Poets & ‘Usefulness’

white & useful

Part One

Danez Smith recently said something in the Guardian which caught my attention. They said: “I want my work to be useful”.

This is hardly controversial and is, I have always presumed, what many poets and artists in general feel about their work, but what struck me immediately was how rarely I have actually heard anyone express it. The only other example I could think of was Denise Riley speaking about how her work in Time Lived, Without its Flow seemed “needed”. As I ruminated on this, and as I thought about the poetry I have read over the years, I started to question my original presumption. A lot of poetry discusses complex issues, holds difficult emotions and situations in unusual lights to help us see them and begin to understand how to deal with them, it allows us new ‘ways of seeing’ to use the old phrase, so I suppose to that extent it is useful. But do poets write to be useful? Or do they write to help themselves through something, or simply to express something they feel the need to express? Or (less generously) to hit the right topics, the ones that will get them published and be popular with the poetry reading public? Or to display their skill, their craft? Or to consolidate their position in the ‘Canon’ (whatever that is) and be remembered by future generations? ‘All, some, or none of these’ is the obvious and not particularly helpful answer. And perhaps motivation is not the point anyway – poetry written for all the above reasons might still be useful to any given reader. But if I’m writing poetry, I also want to be able to say it is useful, and I want to write it to be useful, actively useful in real sense.

So this brings me back to Danez Smith, a black poet writing for black people in their new book Homie, but for a wider, whiter audience in their award-winning Don’t Call Us Dead. Smith’s work is clearly useful in giving voice to an uncompromising and clear-sighted black anger that white audiences need to hear, to rattle the bars of institutional racism. In the US, Smith’s voice is not alone: Claudia Rankine, Terrance Hayes, Jericho Brown, Ocean Vuong, Don Mee Choi are just the names which come immediately to mind. All of them writers of colour writing ugently and ‘usefully’. Their voices are useful not only because of their individual talent, power and beauty, but because of the minority perspective they bring to the majority, dominant – let’s face it, white – culture. They challenge traditional and patriarchal forms (what Audre Lorde called “the word games of the white fathers”), they oppose the white male gaze, they extend what the culture of a white-dominant country is capable of encapsulating and expressing, and for all these reasons and more their poetry might actively make a difference to society. There are voices in the UK about which we could say the same: Jay Bernard, Vahni Capildeo, Sarah Howe, Kei Miller, Mary Jean Chan, again these are just the first names that pop into my head.

These are dynamic, vital voices. ‘Useful’ ones. But could a white poet write usefully about race? I don’t know of any who have tried, or at least who have tried and been published. It would clearly be a risky endeavour (see Part Two below) not least because if too many white poets did try and did get published on race, they would ultimately be likely to drown out the voices of colour and end up working to uphold the very structures that the work of their BAME peers challenges. But there are compelling reasons why a white poetry of race (a genuinely self-reflecting one) could have a ‘useful’ role to play. To provide a background on why I think this is the case, I would recommend two American texts in the first instance, White Fragility by sociologist Robin DiAngelo, and this thoughtful piece from The American Poetry Review by poet Joy Katz ‘Awake In The Scratchy Dark: On Writing Whiteness’. These texts are focused on American experience, but I haven’t found any specific to the UK (which is interesting in itself) and although there are differences, I think the similarities are sufficient to make them relevant here aswell. Part Two of this blog is about how difficult, as well as potentially risky, it is for a white person to write about race and – because I’m writing from the UK – about empire (from which British structural racism is inseparable).

Part Two

I’ve spent the last year and more attempting to write poems about race and the legacy of empire in the UK. Some of these have been okay, some pretty good, some terrible; all of them remain unpublished at the time of writing, and I’ve never posted any of them on my blog. Without looking for an “Aww, you poor lamb”, I must say, it’s not easy for a white person to write honestly about race and empire in the UK. I’m sure it’s not easy for anyone, but I’m white and so that is what I’m qualified to talk about. Why isn’t it easy? Well, on one level of course it’s obvious to say that published white poets, or white poets who want to get published, are nervous about saying the wrong thing and ending up actually getting something published which then prompts a career-ending twitterstorm and blaze of publicity. This is true – and I imagine editors have similar nerves around any white-written, race-based submissions they may have received (not all publicity is good publicity, if that myth was not debunked before social media came along, it surely is now) but it’s a bit poor, isn’t it? I mean, the nerves are understandable, there really is a lot of senstivity and anger around this issue, but let’s not be cowardly: white attitudes to race and empire matter, if only because those voices which represent and constitute the hegemon need to change if anything is going to change. There’s another obvious reason, too, this: white liberal/left poets (I’m not sure I need the slashed adjectives here – pretty much all UK poets fall somewhere on that spectrum, don’t they?) are likely to feel that white voices should not be cluttering up the spaces where voices of colour need to be heard more. They (I should say we) are quite right about this, but again I don’t think it will quite do. As Reni Eddo-Lodge pointed out in ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’, white people will never be ready to talk to people of colour about race and ongoing structural racism – and therefore begin addressing social change – until they are able to talk to each other about it openly and honestly. It seems to me that poetry, with its capacity for concise and acute self-reflection is the ideal place to start doing this. A third reason might be that white poets genuinely don’t think we have anything to add on this issue, that we should step back and allow poets of colour to say what needs to be said because racism happens to them, not us. For a third time: this is not good enough. As DiAngelo says, thinking that racism is only an issue for people of colour is a classic internalised strategy for deflecting responsibilty. Beneficiaries of power rarely notice that they are beneficiaries at all, and those who have always stood at the podium cannot always see that they have been artificially elevated above the crowd. Until the present generation of black and Asian and mixed-race voices came of age and began speaking with clarity and strength, voices of colour, although they were there (and strong, clearly, you only need to think of Benjamin Zephaniah), they were relatively easy for the ‘85%’ to ignore, simply because they were not present in any numbers. This, I think, is no longer the case. Demographics are changing. We, white people, have to think through who we are and how we got here – and to talk it through.

But there is another difficulty for the white poet, a more profound one, and that is the fact that genuine self-reflection, which engages with a diversity of voices on national history, and which takes in all the many and deep ramifications of skin colour, family history, cultural memory and social structures, and which listens to and believes experiences which might seem peripheral to one’s own, and which sees the connections between all these things and is able to relate them back to the self, all this is likely to be painful. It will be easier for the white poet, no doubt, to feel (or perhaps to appropriate) the anger felt by many people of colour, and to aim that anger outwards, self-righteously positioning ourselves as ‘in-solidarity-with’. That is one response. No one wants to align themselves with the oppressor. But more difficult is looking inwards and being prepared to find and accept various levels of privilege, ingrained racism, denial and, yes, fragility. That a white poet will find these is almost beyond doubt, and when we do (this is the really tricky part) we will need to decide what to do about it.

Activism is not the purpose of this blog, poetry is, but I feel increasingly convinced that there is an area – not in the anthem (“Rise, like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number”), and not necessarily in the poetry of protest (“The furious young/ran towards her through the fields of wheat”) – but somewhere less defined where these two, activism and poetry, cross. I believe the arts can act most effectively at a level below that of protest and anthem, at a level of collective cultural awareness and ultimately memory, where it can operate to either strengthen existing social structures or question and challenge them. I am far from an expert on Cultural Theory and so I would be surprised if this is anything revolutionary, but it is where I come back to what I said in Part One about being actively useful – I am advocating poetry as activism at the level of cultural memory.

I wouldn’t normally post my own poems as part of an essay on my blog, but in Part Three I will, in order to illustrate ways in which poetry might at least try to self-reflect on the legacy of race and empire. I’m not arguing for the quality of the poems, just for their attempt, in the ways described above, to be useful:

Part Three

Three Poems

white & useful poem 1


white & useful poem 2


white & useful poem 3


Some reading/listening that has informed this post:

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
White Fragility – Robin DiAngelo
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala
Capitalism and Slavery – Eric Williams
The Anarchy – William Dalrymple
We Need to Talk About the British Empire – Afua Hirsch (6-part Audible series)
Your Silence Will Not Protect You – Audre Lorde
Awake In The Scratchy Dark: On Writing Whiteness – Joy Katz (article, in The American Poetry Review)

Guilt and Symbols: I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen by Steve Ely



I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen (New Walk Editions) is my first foray into the work of Steve Ely and I came away from my initial two or three readings feeling as though I had been shoved up against a wall by Tom Hardy in one of his more intense roles. I mean this in a good way. Ely’s pamphlet is an utterly compelling “Improvisation on Luke X” which maintains throughout its thirteen poems the extemporaneous power of a 19th century preacher in full flow. Ely does not preach the Word of God, however, but the bleak, apocalyptic ‘word’ of a guilt-ridden individual reflecting on his feelings and behaviour in relation to the miscarriage, many years previously, of a son he never really wanted. As in any poetry, we should be wary of equating the speaker with the poet himself, although as the pamphlet is dedicated to “a little boy and a little girl” and the surviving children are named as Briony and Elliot in the first poem, I think we are encouraged to assume that Ely is speaking as himself. And as such, these poems are remarkably frank explorations of the male psyche in relation to tensions between parental responsibility and paternal selfishness, and the intense remorse resulting from prioritising the latter over the former (…I shattered your joy / by proposing you have an abortion: a donkey kick / to the bleating womb, life offered sent bewildered back” ‘Exsultet’). The poet’s guilt is presented as if laid out on a table for dissection – although a better analogy might be a prisoner strapped to a rack for slow torture: the remorse to which the poems give expression is profound to the point of ostentatious. But the accusation of self-flagellation would belittle Ely’s project for two reasons I think. The first is that a genuine study of remorse must engage with both the remorseful and the remorseless, and the disturbing world opened up here lies right at the intersection between the two – like the lightning, that Talmudic “crack between worlds” of the title poem, through which a demon falls. Ely neither spares nor forgives himself (“You cannot / be redeemed” ‘Capernaum’) but forgiveness would be beside the point as coming to terms with his actions and emotions would close the door he has opened on a world so hideous that it is one into which he, with his intense self-loathing, fits perfectly. The second reason is that these poems are not simply a critique of the poet’s own shortcomings as a man and a father, but rather, the world to which his personal sense of guilt allows him access also acts as a surrogate vision of a bleak, violent and soulless wider world (the first two-thirds of the title poem is comprised of a list of tragic and despicable world events that took place in 1995, the year of the miscarriage). To forgive himself, therefore, would be to forgive us all; and that’s not going to happen.

Ely’s particular power comes from the technical dexterity with which he wields a King James biblical register and imagery alongside a cold, scientific vocabulary, the two worlds colliding much as Heaven and Hell might been seen to collide on Earth: “Nothing / begat physics     begat chemistry     begat biology / begat consciousness       begat self-consciousness / begat       physics and chemistry and biology / and consciousness and self-consciousness and /           Nothing. /      The four fundamental forces: / the quintessential fifth – a dark matter. /       The haploid cell, a cold spark of soul / awaiting ignition; the diploid cell, the lit pleroma.” (‘A Dog Speculates on the Mind of Newton’ – formatting approximated) This confident and skilful juxtaposing of worlds has an interesting effect, which I would say is in a sense ‘masculine’: there is a fearless facing (or at least the perception of facing) of Truth. These poems stand up and meet both Religion and Science eye-to-eye. To me this is similar to the tough-minded Richard Dawkins-style atheism which also has its own self-perception as ‘combative’ and ‘manly’ (Ely sees this I think and out-Dawkinses Dawkins with the line “Dawkinsian dope / of awe and wonder can’t numb us to the horror” (‘A Dog Speculates on the Mind of Newton’). The speaker of the title poem also sees himself, in his growing mid-1990s political awareness, as some kind of movie or computer-game assassin (“I taped a machete between my shoulder blades”), while the speaker of the final poem, ‘Haec Nox Est’, steps willingly (and bravely?) “from the cliff into the ocean’s / up-thrust, and plummet(s) in the darkness”. All of this is a dry-eyed acceptance of what must be accepted. Like a warrior facing death, the poet must accept the never-ending horror of his own guilt. But that’s not quite all; at two points we see a softening of the hard outer-shell. The first is in the wording of the dedication already quoted: “To a little girl and a little boy”, this is the voice of a loving father: not “To my children” or some other formation – this wording accentuates their smallness and their anonymity (they may after all not be the children in the first poem, despite what I said earlier) the one emphasising their need for protection and the other attempting to provide it. That there is tenderness here is undeniable, and that it comes at the beginning of all the bleak anguish which follows makes it all the more moving. The second moment of shell-softening is in the final stanza of ‘Ego te Absolvo’ where the repetition of the conditional past “wish” acknowledges, for once, the desire for a different outcome, in other words the poet relinquishes his embrace of his own guilt for a short moment before seeming to shake away the thought and returning to the unchangeable reality of the Now: “I wish he had been born / I wish he was twenty-three. I wish I had not hurt / his mother, that she did not know her sadness. /     I wished it. It probably made no difference. / I wish it. / It makes no difference.”

The poet draws on an almost obscene range of sources for a mere twenty-two pages of poetry. Apart from the obvious biblical references and immanent spirits of Milton and Blake, whose shades permeate everything, Ely quotes from or alludes to Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Talmud, the Nation of Islam, Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, Charles Darwin, Albrecht Dürer, the American TV drama True Detective…and on and on. But they are all helpfully elucidated in the notes at the back, and there is no sense of ‘allusion for allusion’s sake’; the world Ely is conjuring here is one which requires the whole historic weight of western spiritual thought behind it. That is the point I think, that all this symbolism and search for meaning must come together in one man’s single regret: that he wished for his son’s death, and the wish came true. By drenching himself in allusion both he and his son together join their symbolic hosts in the Poetic Eternal (for want of a better phrase): “a flaming man / and a flaming child, with angels falling” (‘Haec Nox Est’). Perhaps if redemption is to be found anywhere in Ely’s dark landscape, it is here.

I should say, it’s not a pamphlet for the faint-hearted, and parts of it might be difficult for someone who has lost a child or suffered a miscarriage; there are lines here which seemed designed if not to shock then to jolt readers out of their slumbers (dogmatic or otherwise). I won’t quote them, not because they are so very horrible, but because I don’t want to take them out of context, and my feeling is that the lines which jolted me were all fully justified by their context – in fact I might say made necessary by their context. I’ll say no more on that partly to keep the review from running away with me and partly in the hope that curiosity compels you to pick up a copy of this excellent pamphlet.

You can buy I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen  from New Walk Editions, here.