Skip to content

The Wide Summer Shelf, 2018 I.


barbed rule

By Peter Riley.

barbed rule

New poetry Summer 2018
Reviewed, noted or just listed
In three parts: First part reviews Carol Rumens and Judith Willson. Part Two reviews Sheila Hamilton, Em Strang, Vahni Capildeo and Dorothy Lehane. Part Three: Steve Ely,  Nick Totton, Aidan Semmens, Scott Thurston, Alex Houen, James Russell, Andrew Wynne Owens, Antony Rowlands; short notes, anthologies for Denise Riley and W.S. Graham, and criticism by Sandeep Parmar et al.

We begin with a run of women poets from the richest use of centrality to way out over yonder. After that poets are clustered according to quite vague notions of subject and style.

‘Safe hands’ — Carol Rumens and Judith Willson
barbed ruleCarol Rumens

De Chirico’s Threads. | Seren Books 2010 | 100pp paperback | £10.00. $18.00
Animal People. | Seren Books 2016 | 72pp paperback | £10.00. $15.00
Bezdelki. | The Emma Press 2018. Illustrations by Emma Wright | 28pp pamphlet | £4.00. $6.00

WHEN A PAMPHLET called Bezdelki (Russian for “trifles, insignificant things”) suddenly arrives, and you open at random and read—

He dranHe Drank to Naval Anchors

He drank to Marxism-Leninism and fridge-freezers.
He drank to Capitalism and struggling repair-men.

He drank to beer-bottle tops and hermaphrodite bread-bags,
half brown paper, half crisp cellophane,

to bison stock-cubes and Ardennes duck-pâté,
and the gold braid twisted into reproachful anchors

on salt white caps no Soviet sailor wore…

…you can feel that you are in safe hands, that the language actually is a resource and as such wide, and not bound to either rationalist or fantasist usage, that the writing can comprehend verbally conceived comedy, and that a certain sense of wicked humour might inhabit the most serious considerations…

Some of the couplings in this poem are disparate beyond calculation, as if they fell into place by chance, and this is itself a serious event by its implications within an overtly playful poem. And the assumption that the poem serves as a portrait of one presumably quite eccentric man, now in the past tense (the whole pamphlet is in memory of Yuri Drobychev, who worked with Rumens on Russian translations.) does not mitigate the poetry’s free-ranging resource. The note that the poem is based on the structure of Mandelstam’s “I drink to the military asters”1 and that two further poems are translations from Mandelstam might reinforce this sense, since Mandelstam avoided formal extremes and can represent for British poetry what could have been at the centre, had not the bottom fallen out. But it doesn’t transgress certain grammatical or lexical limits. Why should it?

These collections contain poems which exist in a perfectly standard relationship to their subject and don’t shift an inch from it…

Carol Rumens has a substantial reputation (though we do not seem to see her name bandied about they way it might be; but then she is not Northern Irish. Not being Northern Irish is an unwise career move for British poets) which is probably based on a recognisable dramatic and linguistic versatility and sustained tone in a wide range of scenarios and different levels of seriousness or light-heartedness. These, her fourteenth and fifteenth (I think) collections still contain poems which exist in a perfectly standard relationship to their subject and don’t shift an inch from it: anecdotes, joke poems, straight talking poems, memory poems and so forth. Some of the light poems are rather facile, but perhaps she needed them for public appearances, as Roy Fisher did. The ease of the craft is clear, some reading as if they were dashed off in a couple of minutes, which if you attempt it yourself you’ll see that they weren’t; clear too is the mainly prosaic mono-vocal steady address when it occurs, which it doesn’t necessarily. Any of these poems may take unexpected and imaginative turns or suddenly throw out words, in a variety of languages, which disrupt the surface. Or the whole course of the discourse may (approaching the end) be bent and thrust upward into unpredicted reaches. Which is to say, in case the “experimental” division is whispering behind my neck, that respect is due for plainly evident workmanship (woman-ship) operative in a variety of modes.

What interests me most in these recent books is a more frequent and committed venture into the reaches of unorthodox procedures…

WHAT INTERESTS ME most in these recent books is a more frequent and committed venture into the reaches of unorthodox procedures, to the extent of sometimes letting go of the railing which maintains her balance. These excursions are supported by an increased intervention of continental therefore modernist elements, translated or reworked or meditated or extended: Mandelshtam, de Chirico, Apollinaire, Rilke, Jószef Brodsky… I don’t know how far back this goes; Montale was a presence in her previous book, Blind Spots. The degree of commitment varies and can be uncertain, but Animal People includes “The Reddish Wheelbarrow”, (pp.25-27) which extends Carlos Williams’ 22 syllables to a 60-line poem in four sections2 and transforms it from a squib to an elegiac poem. It’s a perfectly serious and perfectly skittish poem which begins with an unusual cluster of identical rhymes, a token of the constriction and severe localisation of the beginning, emphasising the questions of duration and decay she introduces into the picture—

So much of it’s rust,
it would disappear between traceries of rust,
were the rips and holes not laced
with additional strips of rust.

It might have lost its lustre…

The one contra-rhyme, “laced” is polar in its sonic brightness as the call to get up and get out of it, the two sonic contraries uniting at the end of line 5. The poem, almost certainly concerned with Drobyshev, goes on into Russian labour camps (and their wheelbarrows) and then into a personal passage of great imaginative intensity, and the poem ends—

So much depends
juxtaposition –
the gears of a poem-in-motion –

or simply hyperteria monokyklou,
wintering upside-down against the wall
for as long as gravity wants
to play, and white feathers fly

from important sacrifices:
for as long as we fetch and carry
tyre-shreds, cinders, rust
at the edge of a rusting spade.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

The section from which I have not quoted is something I would not have thought Rumens capable of, nor wanting to be (“What more do you need but a Zippo / to lick the ziggurat over, / the flame-saplings wriggling / at gusts from the rusty air-ways, / red heat, white ash and always / someone to share the business…”) though I probably missed things and there are clearly kindred episodes in both books. I notice that working from Carlos Williams’ little piece, the manner she arrives at does not relate to his, nor to Pound’s nor the Imagists’, but could be said to relate more to the Thomas-derived figurative muscular locomotion of mid-period Graham, if anything.3

THERE ARE ALSO some intriguing poems which refer explicitly to British modernist or similar poets, but it is not always easy to be sure whether they are tongue-in-cheek. Such is the short “John Rodker Composes a Cold Elegy for Isaac Rosenberg” in Animal People

no more will that pronoun in your sealed hand
nor the tricks of your verb-wiresr sealtrip me

no more shall the brush-firewiryou sowed fanned
no more shall the brush-firewirsweep by & gut myintodirt-town

flirt onshallwhip of starslipsred heap
flirt onshalalas my lipless!
flirt onshalalas.see
your miraculumwhipyour misillery 4gutcrackle into closedown

The manner here is not really very close to Rodker’s either, though he does sometimes space words out like that, but so does Rumens, in both books as do, I think, people like John Burnside. I don’t think either Rodker or Rosenberg is being demoted here; things like the Gothic “alas my lipless!” are too strong (compare the undoubtedly sincere poem in memory of David Jones here in The Fortnightly Review. )

It is remarkable how two such almost polar modes as this and some of her plain descriptive poems stand together in the same book, each holding to its own territory and suggesting sometimes that the skills involved in bring both to a full realisation are at least kindred. There are qualities involved of thoroughness, of maintaining the poem’s tension and pressing the substance of the poem on to reach a satisfying ending, which is an issue beyond centres or fringes. Rumens likes each type of poem to reach the ending that belongs to it, which may be a flippant aside, or a sonorous image-laden symphonic closure. Each poem creates its own bounds.

There is also at times the employment of what some call “subject-bound poetry” as a real study of specific questions, cultural or not. De Chirico’s Threads involves an insistent study-through-poetry of the Italian artist’s pictorial theatre and its implications in experience, ending with a long verse drama in which he, his family, Breton and Apollinaire thrash it all out and the Minotaur gives the farewell address on the worth of art. The writing throughout is unrelentingly inventive and comprehensive, and lyrically strong. Animal People ends with a sustained and serious study of the Autistic Spectrum Condition in one substantial poem and a note, which also informs some of the material throughout the book. From consideration of the particular abilities of the autistic person the poetry approaches the convergence of animal and human which gives the book its title.

Judith Willson
Crossing the Mirror Line.

Carcanet 2017 | 80pp paperback | £10.00. $13.00

JUDITH WILLSON MAINTAINS a calm and even tone through all sorts of poetical theatres short of large scale damage. It is a poetry of settlement, of attending to the artistic voices including your own, and contemplating their artefacts as is only possible in a civilised condition. How it might view such things as governmental cruelty or the history of brutality, is suggested through the careful development of figurative language.

Usually there is a starting point in which attention is drawn to a particular: a minor event, circumstance, observation, scene, object, a painting, a sculpture, a place, an incident…and as the careful sentences succeed each other the particular is unfolded, showing its details or entailments and sometimes not much more than that, but more often the language is carried along from one percept to the next into regions quite far from the starting-point, beyond what could be predicated in the first place, and the metaphors augment and widen. That is, it enters (through the mirror) into a world apart, or the land of poetry. There may or may not be a return at the end of the poem. It is like a form of meditation in which the mind does not lose sight of the object but is free to hover around it while the imagination releases what was inherent, and it remains a personal act, not claiming a revelation but weaving a progression, sometimes a kind of narrative.

The conclusion of this process in the last lines generally enacts a sense of acceptance, sometimes reluctantly, facing what is left of the question, settling back into itself. The act is one of having understood or agreed to a contract with the world. One poem which unusually involves violence, the death of a boy in a mining accident quoted from documentation (‘A Nice Sharp Boy’) recovers at the end a reluctant kind of calm, in the very ordinary but specific language of when and where — “No blame attached. He was not to go in that place.”

The centres of attention are places with their native stories attached, paintings and music and other things, always as starting points.

The book is divided into three sections with headings, though I can’t easily define the distinctions. The poems are also sometimes clustered into groups of three of four in a way which is clearer than the sectioning. The centres of attention are places with their native stories attached, paintings and music and other things, always as starting points. There seems to be recourse to imagery from Central Europe, which may be nothing of the sort, which enters the poem at some point as an extension of its ground, a distancing from the question or perhaps one way of resolving things across distance and time, or it may occupy a whole poem. Passing reference to a forest, mountain, horses, village details, histories and stories. A short poem based on a piece by Kurtág which stages phrases from the words of a Romanian carol, has a melancholic feel to it in the invocation of remoteness and limitation at the same time as local sufficiency, which recurs several times in very different poems in various parts of the book.

THERE IS A poem which makes her process particularly clear: “Neither Near Nor Far Away”, It begins with the great first line “You are thinking about hens…” and ends three pages later with “You sit here with your book /in a small resort on a blue October evening / thinking about hens…” but meanwhile has proved to be a contemplation of the life of Giovanni Pascoli full of evocative images and as-if-remembered incident amounting to the contemplation of a damaged history. But not all the poems of distance are as explicit and methodical as this, some of them walk straight into the poetical realm from the start. There is a cluster of four poems involving “Yetta” (a central European given name) which with no explicit context or narrative seem to enact a story, entirely by image, small fragments of telling or memory, of a village girl leaving home and entering a city, or dreaming that she does. The fourth poem is—

When Yetta sleeps

she puts on her red coat
with the three coral beads
stitched into its lining

and walks into a city
where snow falls for years.
The streets are deserted.

Bridges fly through the night.
Out in distant suburbs
the last trains have stopped.

She hears wind drag its stick
along railings, someone
ring doorbells, click switches.

She hears her mother call
Little bird, little bird.
She walks light as blown grass.

A lot of care is taken to maintain a certain tone, of significant but inexplicit detail, a tone of distant lament ambiguously melted into release, perhaps a “poetic“ tone, and the craft of this is evident from “the” in the second line to the poignant “little bird” (Hungarian folk-song motif? perhaps) at the end.

I feel this represents a relaxed progression but one acutely alive to detail possibilities, quite similar to what Carol Rumens does, which only an obsessive partisan of some kind would want to label ‘reactionary’.

Part Two: Sheila Hamilton, Em Strang, Vahni Capildeo and Dorothy Lehane.

Index: The Wide Summer Shelf, 2018.

Fortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.



  1. 1931, in what are called the Moscow Notebooks.
  2. I have a suspicion that the poem is actually in five sections of 12 lines each, and that the asterisk marking a division was accidentally omitted after line 36.
  3. She comments, in her Guardian column, on the poem.
  4. Misillery is normally spelled missilery, if it is the same word: plurality of missiles.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x