Skip to content

Spring storms 2020.


barbed rule



barbed rule

Letters from the Takeaway
by Khaled Hakim

Shearsman Books 2019 | 108pp paper. | £10.95 $3.29


The Caprices
by James Byrne

Arc Publications 2019 | 108pp Paper or Hardcover | £10.99/£13.99

barbed rule
THE LANGUAGE OF Khaled Hakim’s “letters” is not standard written English, but neither is it the spoken language, nor is it dialect (though there are traces of accent). It is simply the English of someone who can’t spell, artfully constructed by an author who can spell as well as anyone else when he needs to. The written form seems to struggle to transmit the sound of the word, but it is not a consistent phonetic transcript because the same word can be done in different ways or left as it normally is. The script is continually newly created, to cope with each item of sense as it occurs. It isn’t done to facilitate puns and subtexts, in fact its effect is generally restrictive. The constant mis-spelling of a vocabulary which comprises a range from high sophistication to strategic naivety builds up the figure of the “I”, the letter-writer, as a scripted contradiction, a persistent adventuring failure and defiant comedian. The work is full-scale social and cultural satire from the urban cellars. “Picaresque” might cover it.

It’s a kind of pastoral, the monologue of a swain, artfully trapped in a faulted or limited language which separates it from recognised forms of “educated” speech.

It’s a kind of pastoral, the monologue of a swain, artfully trapped in a faulted or limited language which separates it from recognised forms of “educated” speech. He becomes a Bumkinet, a Grubbinol, a Colin Clout, warbling his woes, a constructed voice from the middle of an underclass, full of aspiration, revealing in his constant disappointment and frustration serious faults in the structure, but also in comedic asides mocking our immense repertoire of fakery. Hakim masters a narrative of mess and impossibility seeded with lament and tenderness with an expert technique for a bathetic undercutting of aspirations, whereby his hero regains his lost stature and points the finger direct at the lie itself. And what he wins by is our laughter.

Thus he deals with the “identity” of racial origin (his own):

By the way Atif — when did Cultural Theorists deside I was Black? My mom, & my cusins in Mile End they stil  dont know theyr Black & coopted into th Struggle. Theyr still waiting for a Counsil house if theyre lissening. Im happy to be coopted by progresiv intelectuals , but cud i possibly be calld Tea Colored? I lyk it qwite stroong.


frustrated black executivs sit in virtual suits mugging little old ladiez & declaring in refined tones Take that, you mizerable honkey momma!

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward 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.

These are asides, of which there are many, in a continuum of appeals for help in knowing where he (or it, or everything) went wrong, but also including statements of belief and trust, and tales, mostly of misadventure in bohemian, artistic or poverty-stricken circles in urban cellars. These tales have a ring of authenticity and the collection brings together letters from two phases of his life, in Birmingham in the 1990s and London thirty years later, when the same quest is resumed.

There is a bunch of preludial letters to himself, beginning “Dear Khaled Hakim I knew you 16 going 28 yers ago wen y/ wer pretending to be human”, brooding over wasted years and abandoned ventures into poetry, and casting out barbed arrows of exasperation with himself and with the culture he finds himself in. Here are three, on education, poetry and the academy, and the chances of a future:

How ar y/ going to rescu me in posteritie – are we all being retraned in permanent Yooth Traning Sceems ware in th future everywon wil hav a job for 15 minits.

Surly ther was a tyme wen inovativ poetics was not tenured to a Theorhoea that betrays the anxietie of subject status – in a langwige of hieratick snake oil hucksters

Jezus Crist, do ye kno wat its lyk to be looking at an online poetiks publisher wich reproduses its contributers departments & academik status – Senior Lecturer Universiti this, & Universitie Hed of Creativ that – w/ all th pomp of a roll call of titled Patrons to an investment bank

and a warning to any who might be tempted to follow in his tracks (to London, to western culture or wherever):

O brothers, don’t follow me out here, the future is worse than you imagined. The freaknods of academia have won out – and the planet is policed by Judith Butler fanboys. We have had our Kristallnacht when thousands of cisgendered Ikea furnishings were smashed by the Rainbow Coalition. I am hiding in plain sight as a shilling Jew teaching Transgender Monkey Studies.

He gets away with this because he has already established his role in the narrative, as comedian, artist and intellectual struggling with his own failure. So it is an act, and all his pronouncements are subject to a fictionalising theatricality in the light of the helplessness of his own condition. His insistences are conservative throughout, “patriarkal” as he says, representing a longing for an intellectual stability, and normality, which have been lost to the advantages of exceptionality, forming success-zones from which he is disqualified. But if you can sense the serious substratum beneath his diatribes, they are also things which need to be said, frustrations which are shared widely.

The rest of the book is titled “Letters from the Takeaway”, but within it are four letters bearing the same heading, which represent the central confrontation with necessity. Hakim is an experimental film-maker and there are two letters to Stan Brakhage which contain his most thoughtful and evidently sincere verdicts on the entire artistic enterprise, mixed in with tales of wandering in New York and falling into four parties all of which lead to the usual damage to mind and body, all this in an escape from the domestic which is regretted:

yu shd kno, at the end of the escayp, from the family, the hows, the children that wer yoo, ye shd know at the end of th rode is deth.

but yu shd kno, that yu canot liv in that feeling, running faster & faster than freshnes, becuz ther is deth in that experians.

The “running” here implicates not only the untold tale of escape from family, but also the speed of Brakhage’s frame movements and the claim to being ahead in many different contexts. A more extended quotation shows the comprehensiveness and acuity of his virtuosic diatribes, the size and weight of an entirely serious critique—

yre asking like I know what im dg – everything is transparently somthing els – the reduced menings of minimalism… narrativ like a bad striptese discover weve reched bone & there is nothing left;

& Grandaunt Tiger cryed out & died. The flatness of th telling catches the authentick nurserie tone: the lack of affect of the premoral child

the ‘publick’ as opposed to the actual audience wch exerts presur… visible in paws intonacion outburst nonsequitor all the inflexions of real speech another excuse to be a derelict – noone takes me seriusly as it is

I waz doing it liyk a poet. Peple must think im loony. I was doing it lik failur.

As the result of poetry is failure, so the reward of the practice of modernism in any of the arts, which I guess he espouses as writer and film-maker, is loneliness. The state of belonging is reserved for showbiz prize-winners and academic cabalists.

There is also a letter to the poet David Antin (but headed “Dear Nicholas”) which begins with the tale of the visit to The Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall, where, in the toilet next door, he finds two men misbehaving “& I lyked that. It felt lyk poetry was beeng kept alive. Caus ther wer mor peple in the toilet than the libry.” He goes on to more optimistic hopes for the survival of poetry as something that acts through individual life choices, a subject which like all his subjects, is never singular or free of a sense of pre-defeat.

THE FOUR LETTERS “from the Takeaway” find him in need of a job and working for his uncle’s take-away Indian restaurant in Old Hill, which I think is a suburb of Birmingham. Here the seeker of creative wisdom is up against the economic forces which want his entire existence to be dedicated to food and delivery. A mass of questions and answers seeking the highest viewpoint of our intellectual capacities are interrupted by the banalities of the food trade, or ignored, and sometimes the one word, “curry”, collapses the discourse by being thrust in as the new name for the end product, formerly thesis, poem, film or whatever (“Deep personal conviction is never enow to make a curry”) and the whole venture is damned by the screaming complaints from his employer, in italics and a heavier accent, which demand the abandonment of all cultural hope, quite threatening in its insistence that “we” [the underclass] will never be real intellectuals. Hakim develops this into an expanding diatribe against the whole of western intellectuality, all to be sent to Hell, threateningly expressed as imprisonment in his (or any) community:

Whad is dis – Hey fool – yoo lezy bohgar ynow. You shud be sarve cashtomer yknow not reding book. […] you tink yu are mebbe wan day big riter – iz never be – owr peepl dey nevar allow […] Yeh – yeare not white yoo ar gipsie mongrel – yoo Cristian peple craftie boggar yuno …

This halt, this interruption, this denial, this paywall, is everywhere. And as for transcendence though mysticism and prophesy:

softwaer astrologikal progressions foretell yoo will shortly be charged £50 reeding fee

At several points towards the end of the book Hakim declares the position he has finally gotten into:

We are th lost benefit seekers, we are all rowing a slavship to Syria – hoo knew 4000 shahids are stacking shopping trollies wayting for a conflagracion of th hart

and the choice before him if he is to participate or understand in any way the condition he has inherited, or achieve anything resembling success—

Is this my choice – bitween a talky intelectualizm from the Himalayas of asceticizm that will get me a lecturing job –

or a media frendly subversivness that finds ample excews to get fitlooking birds to tak ther kit off & invites all the audiens to the backstage party?

In the space between these stand failure, loneliness, and modernism.

You could copy out the whole book to furnish enough instances of Hakim’s wit and depth. Towards the end there are three short sections which read more like poetry (he is interested in “to be poetry & not poetre at the same tiyme”) and seem more positive, offering love and herbage, a touch of lyric and a train to Birmingham as figures of hope. The book actually ends with a shout of joy.

There is also a forward by Tim Atkins which is bright and alluring but seems to be at odds with the author on some important points.

EIGHTY EIGHT-LINE poems based on the eighty etchings of Goya’s Los Caprichos, each of which is reproduced under the poem. And there the trouble starts, because the pictures are not well reproduced. They are small, and dim, and of low resolution, so a lot of small detail is lost, including details which both Goya and Byrne refer to. In plate 7 for instance, it is impossible to see, even with a magnifying glass, that the man is examining the woman’s face through a monocle (“the monocle glowers”). To read the poems carefully in relation to the pictures it would be better to resort to the web, where two complete sets are viewable, both far clearer than the pictures in the book; one in the Wikipedia page on Los Caprichos, the other sent in by “The Canvas”. The latter is particularly useful as it includes in full, though in spoken form, a set of explanatory captions or notes by Goya which survive in manuscript, and which Byrne uses quite freely.

And Los Caprichos do need explaining, and always have. Whatever powers of recognition we grant to Goya’s contemporaries in Madrid much of the work must remain enigmatic. If he was satirising the society he lived in, he did it in images which were partly indecipherable, with headings that only increased the uncertainty. Many of the pictures represent stories which are not told, and guessing them can never have been easy. Goya acknowledged this himself by composing his explanatory notes, but they were not made public and in any case some of them are far from explanatory. His Third of May 1808 does not need explaining.

To some extent, and especially towards the beginning of the collection, Byrne takes on the role of explainer, supplying at least something of the situation or story which otherwise we would be struggling to reach. But the poem always goes beyond that kind of attention in search of modernisation and globalisation of Goya’s complaints, and often reaches a particularly obstinate kind of difficulty. For plate 4, for instance, “Nanny’s Boy”, which shows a rather strange boy in a dress and with a mask-like white face (with a moustache?) apparently stuffing his fingers into his mouth. Goya’s note, which is quite long, is a complaint about the spoilt child, who becomes “insufferable”. “They grow up but remain childish.” Byrne repeats this – “Grown insufferable, child as man…” and extends and modernises it in the next line, “carousing in drag on stag weekends.” which is rather a sweeping assumption of causality but maintains the subject. He then takes the thing into his own hands:

If family is the world’s first true woe,
it is followed by the family corrupted.

This, far beyond Goya, I take to be Byrne’s own version. It is a characteristic of the whole book, when it offers comprehensibility, to interject contentious modern matter, baldly stated and often fragmentary, which there is no space available to consider properly, no circumstance or consideration. They are thrown at us in a quick breath and on to the next.

The last two lines of this poem are a fine dismissal, the sort of witty, punchy writing more of which I would have liked to see:

Play piggy wiggy with him, let him go
to the market to find himself, she said.

Four pages later, plate 8 page 29 “They carried her off”, shows a woman being abducted by two hooded figures, and remains focussed on the picture’s subject matter, but with violent modernisations and the language subject to a deliberate awkwardness which must be integral to the whole transformative intent. Here is the whole poem:

Anjashna, who are the they is he
and is you: possessors enact their law.
Woman as cargo glass. La mujer qe
no se sabe guardar. Man is impure
as the dirt he would taint you with.
Before the schoolgirls in Chibok
were carried off to Sambisa forest,
all those wearing trousers were shot.

Many of the etchings are involved in matters of gender and marriage, including arranged marriages, which Byrne subjects to a feminist interpretation, as here. The word “man” bears a shadow on it throughout—“he” is the source of harm, the abductor who seeks to hurt. The clause in Spanish comes direct (as Byrne’s note says) from Goya’s note, and I assume it remains in Spanish as a distancing, because Byrne here does not accept Goya’s account: “the woman who cannot take care of herself”. If “Man is as impure as the dirt he would taint you with” this part responsibility of the victim can’t be tolerated in English. We want a simple duality.

There is no analysis or circumstance, which is a condition that has to be accepted over the whole collection. Indeed, we don’t know what to do with this fact except be shocked by it…

Leaving “Anjashna” and “cargo glass” to the winds, the last three lines form another of Byrne’s brilliant dismissive endings, kicking the abduction theme right out of Goya’s time and place. There is no analysis or circumstance, which is a condition that has to be accepted over the whole collection. Indeed, we don’t know what to do with this fact except be shocked by it, because “it happened”. But did it? I can find no mention of this episode in any of the readily available reports of the mass abduction of schoolgirls at Chibok in 2014 and I do feel that the reader needs to know. If the enterprise is to be recognised as a modernisation and globalisation of the human lapses depicted by Goya, it makes a lot of difference whether the evidence cited is true or fictional.

And something like that does seem to be the idea. On the basis presumably of moralistic thematic correspondences with the pictures, eight-line poems are built up which more or less refer to the picture and what is happening in it, or set up parallels of some kind. It’s usually possible to recognise an act of commentary if only a few words in length. But the rest can be an orgy of improvised awkwardness, for contemporaneity is attained not just by reference but by a contorting of the language. Wrong words, inexplicables, non-sequiturs, weasel words, unconnectable references, obliquity, jargon, idiolect… devices to prevent understanding. I thought the best thing to do was to pick one of the most difficult I could find and go for it. Plate 29 (page 50): Esto sí que es leer, translated by Byrne as That certainly is being able to read:

Combing Sunday nibs for a headline.
The loss of language ages us, Eduard.
Schizophrene grief on losing Einstein,
a family smithereened to its heart.
Albert exiled to the Olsonian lectern
on Black Mountain. Tete in Burgholzli,
alone, enwalled, shocked as Bedlam.
Black is the scent of electricity.

Scene: An old man wearing a kind of surplice, sitting in a chair reading a book, while behind him two dark figures (servants?) attend to him, one combing his hair, the other putting one of his feet into a pointed shoe. His eyes are closed, though this is not obvious. Everything is darkened except the old man’s head and upper clothing.

Goya’s note: They are combing his hair. They are putting on his shoes. He is sleeping and he is studying. No one shall say that he is not making the most of his time.”

IS THIS THEN an avant-garde poetry we are dealing with? If difficulty and inaccessibility are the signs of it, yes it is. But they aren’t, and this is clearly as “mainstream” a poem (if you use that vocabulary) as you’ll find anywhere. However silly it gets, the avant-garde text is active, it seeks readers, it appeals to senses of liberation and free-play. This poem is entirely bound up in itself, it defies the reader to read it, and not only by its abstruse vocabulary and references but also in distorted or fragmented syntax and impossible figurations, such as the first line which, apart from the fact that “Combed” is taken from Goya, defeats me as fully as any line of experimental poetry ever has — and deliberately, obviously. It is mainstream in its sense of being in a secure position, by conforming, however occultly, to dominant socio-political expectations and by being impregnable. So it’s no use asking questions: the poet provokes them but knows he doesn’t need to provide answers.

How do you comb a nib? Whose loss of language? Who is Eduard? How was Einstein lost and to whom? Was there some proposed connection between Einstein and Black Mountain? Was the whole history of the college, of which poetry was such a minor part, nothing but Olson preaching? Is “Tete” Zolani Tete the South African boxer and if so what is he doing in a Swiss mental hospital? Weren’t people rather shocked by Bedlam than as? The answer to these and other questions is silence; there is nowhere to turn within the poem. A lot of the stumbling blocks, as I usually call them, are academic, like the casual reference to Charles Olson, which not only appeals to recognition of the name but also carries an attitude towards him which is shared among the cognoscenti, but which outsiders can’t be sure of.

These questions are not all unanswerable, but to deal with of them you would need a massive resource of documentation or a lot of time to spend in slow and patient deliberation trying to undo knots. In the sentence about Bedlam for instance, the switching of prepositions could be a quick modernist effect whereby agent and subject exchange their functions: we are shocked by Bedlam but subject to a reciprocal process in which we recognise that we are Bedlam by a metaphorical transaction, or we maintain our own Bedlams in the institutional or political conditions we allow. I wouldn’t want to deny Byrne the attainment of this kind of subtle effect, produced by awkward formulations and unlikely to be deliberated. For another: the first line must be directed at modern cultural journalism (Sunday: the day with most cultural matter, if there is any to be found at all), possibly with a pun on ”head-lice”.

Goya’s own moral on the other hand seems to be perfectly clear, and avoided by Byrne, except that if there were a discernible buried argument it might be about colleges, education, students, their time wasted.

Byrne has gone to a lot of trouble, he has studied Los Caprichos exhaustively and persisted with determination through all 80. This is an achievement in itself. His introductory “Process Notes” speak of ekphrasis (another unnecessary word) mainly in two respects: his own excited response to seeing how the original prints might be made relevant to his own life-experience, and the claim that the world at large needs its understanding to be defeated because of the state of total crisis it is now in, especially as regards the exercise of power over innocent victims, and Goya’s phantasmagoria can be co-opted into protest about this. The author’s introductory notes even identify current issues coded into the text: “clownstick” is Donald Trump, “cocksnook” is Harvey Weinstein, and several poems offer solidarity with the #MeToo movement. The blurbs speak more widely, one of osmosis and “the parallel darkness, violence and unreason that pervades our modern times,” the other of a form of collaboration with Goya, “a setting of Goya to music” (which sounds rather 1890s) but none of these accounts for the extreme resistance of the texts, their refusal to speak except by remote or occulted implication, the secretising.

Plate 43 bears Goya’s famous motto, “The sleep of reason produces monsters”. Byrne’s response to this is, as in many other poems, a doomed apocalypse, “Now that the state legitimises hate…” with no possibility that the “sleep” is temporary and reason will inevitably awake and again collaborate with imagination. The cry that issues from the whole book confirms that the monsters are with us forever.

The ambition of this project is considerable, to create a totalised language by welding together linguistic items from here there and everywhere, including the great resource he has in literary reference, reinforced by syntactic distortion. Other modern poets have had such ambition, notably Pound, but I’m not convinced that it’s possible in small formats such as tight and difficult eight line poems, however many of them there are; Pound’s attempts were at least expansive. Byrne asks, “Where are the Blakes and Miltons now?”, which confirms the totalising claim of the book, but if it lacks the Miltonic and the Blakean it is because Paradise Lost speaks through an entire religion and Blake’s lyrical poetry sings forth loud and clear a missionary urge to re-think experience. Byrne does neither of these but strives to incorporate heterogeneous material into a personal model of the world, which is itself disabled, hobbled, non-transmissive, and finally inert. All the doors are closed and locked.

The poems are rhymed as two quatrains ABABCDCD, but this is easily missed because the definition of rhyme is very permissive — the rhyme words in a typical instance (plate 16) are: clouds/chrysalis, place/sense, out/night, awkward/mud. In addition to this the rhythm of the lines is prosaic and frequently an enjambment runs over the line endings. I mention this feature last because when you do register it, it could be a redeeming factor. To hear the two quatrains as songs — mad songs, like Goya’s mad images, an artificial madness with serious critical intent, is a possible recompense for the hard, humourless surface. I don’t think it is entirely successful because Goya’s mad images are distinct inversions and metaphors – preaching owls, teaching donkeys, people with chairs on their heads etc., whereas Byrne’s songs are mad in a wilful confusion which refuses language’s transmissive function and seems to want to frustrate everybody by insistently offering bits of language to them which they can do nothing about.


Books Noted and Worthy

Zoë Skoulding,
Footnotes to Water.
Seren Books 2019 | 68pp paperback | £9.99 $12.43

THREE POETICAL AND documentary projects, two of them concerning underground rivers, in Paris and Bangor. Part of the Paris one is here in The Fortnightly Review. The other is called, and about, “heft”. Thoughtful poems, imaginative in detail, punctuation-free but without jars. Female and communal geography, reaching towards significantly pointed endings, modern cautions in the behaviour of old buried streams:

spent-out water running through
where trickledown never did

The hidden rivers and the invisible homing routes stand for the unacknowledged substrata of redemptive attention. The first section, “Adda”, which is a partly communal project, particularly maintains a constantly eloquent continuum, rich in wit and purpose but also delicacy of tone and coloration—

Honeysuckle weight of a summer night—
hello, the nightingales are way off course
in a blue song wavering goodbye

This is a particularly calm and mellifluous modern poetical writing which embraces confrontation with wrong (“The Bièvre today represents the most perfect symbol of feminine misery exploited by a large city…”) without harming the lyrical condition of total response.

Maurice Scully,
Play Book.
Coracle (Clonmel, Ireland) 2019 | 188pp hardback | £18.00

A STYLISH PRODUCTION of Maurice Scully’s unique writings, 42 mostly lengthy poems with short lines, all with one-word titles beginning with P. The one called “Parabola” is here in The Fortnightly Review. Difficult to describe the language use Scully has worked out for himself, quite distinct from other innovative modes. It is perfectly plain but it can go anywhere. It is void of all connotative or poetically echoic conditions (that’s not quite true) and it can be an ordinary encounter with a dog (“good dog”), an act of noticing the physical procedures of writing, exploration of the extensions of “now”, sometimes a mockery of mechanical thought, but when a poem begins “the emperor / of ice cream bangs / with his bag full / of god dancing” you can expect to be led into a territory far from ordinary. You will find ways of reading it.

Jon Thompson,
Notebook of Last Things.
Shearsman Books 2019 | 88pp square paperback | £0.93 $14.89

THIS BOOK CONSISTS of about 200 three-line poems in three sections. Can I call then poems? The author does, and in many cases they are obviously written as such, but there is also a feeling that most of them don’t make it as poems, and this is part of the plan. They are a great variety of things with a great variety of effects and functions, the sum of which is governed by a first person noting everything he can, day by day, of where and what he is, the walker in the city by day or night. Observations, dreams, thoughts, little scenes, passing events and encounters, things on the news – these are all notated within a range of forms of attention: they may be ordinary, insignificant, inactive, fragmentary… they may be exceptional, paradoxical, significant, alarming… But always they leave a question behind, a need for redress or explanation. Some of them are succinct and pointed observations:

Black man shot by the police had either
four shots in the back or shots in the chest, arms &
shoulder, depending on which autopsy you believe.

What builds up is less a jigsaw of the city and more a portrait of the author as questing observer of self and world, thinking quick, sharp or puzzled comments, or refraining from any intrusion but leaving behind an incompletion which is more than individual. What coheres the whole thing is that occasionally throughout, perhaps twelve times in all, a triplet speaks of the “Recording Angel” who simply records what is and what happens without thirst for explanation or responsibility:

The Recording Angel doesn’t
listen to the arguments regarding why the innocents
get gunned down. He just tallies the numbers.

Against this figure there is a sense of incompletion in all the other, authorial, pieces, a longing to know why or to reach beyond observation and implication to a total understanding of which the Recording Angel is a parody. The accurate and open annotations of a modern urban existence leave behind an imbalance that needs adjusting, a longing for some over-all presiding president to whom these reports may be delivered in all their troubled inconclusion and frustration, their demands for a “why” as against the plain, heartless, numerical facts delivered by the Recording Angel.

Steve Ely,
I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven: An improvisation on Luke X.
New Walk Editions 2019 | 28pp booklet | £9.95

STEVE ELY HAS one of the strongest lines around, compounding scriptural weight and northern realism. He has also reclaimed history as poetry’s subject and developed ballad-like narratives of the brutal miseries of urban squalor . But aside from the Mediaeval massacres and fights to the death there have always been episodes of contemplative calm and delicacy, hermit cells in river dales or the struggles of small birds. This narrative sequence continues directly from Lectio Violant, which has recently appeared here in The Fortnightly Review. It inserts into the chronicles a personal history which I think is a new phase of Ely’s progression but which connects to global and epic substance, at the same time as being an “improvisation” on Luke X.18 where an angel fallen to earth as lightning becomes Satan. And perhaps most importantly, in the ensuing struggle “guilt is embraced” and it is not mitigated guilt, it is the immediate hard-hitting guilt of looking back, shocked, at your own history.

Daragh Breen,
Shearsman Books 2020 | 90pp paperback | £9.95 $17.00

IT’S GOOD THAT Shearsman has brought out another book by Daragh Breen four years after What the Wolf Heard (2016, reviewed here in The Fortnightly Review; a section of the new book can be found here. ) Further tales and scenarios of the merging of human and animal, which remain poems. Witches abound, real imagined beings and agencies created by human fear; foxes likewise in their delicate dresses and all the crows that assemble in the sky round a human apprehension of death. Less reliant than in the earlier book on striking images and tales of threat, more thoughtful, the phantasmagoria less insistently rustic, the narratives extending towards a sense of wholeness. But still that imaginative creation of a whole theatre in the margins of where we think we are, out of forgotten unities, sometimes in no more than a quite casually delivered detail:

The female dog has spent the early part of winter
outdoors, licking and chewing witch’s butter


Out in his cobbled backyard
the Reverend Jack Russell watches
a goldfinch prepare for its own funeral…

Of course it does. The poems inhabit an edge zone where such things take place in every paused glance at the black trees in the snow fields and in every shiver in the night.

Oddly, “witch’s butter” is, like “nostoc”, another name for star jelly…

Michael Haslam,
Ickerbrow Trig.
Shearsman Books 2020 | 118pp paperback | £10.95 $18.00

… star jelly being one of Michael Haslam’s fixations. (This was discovered when the two books were launched together in London). The others include ”musical” poetry, in which sense is led by sound – but not anywhere.Sound knows where it needs to go. He also believes in “enjoyment” as the purpose of departure in poetry from rational or everyday discourse, though he is entirely reasonable, and contemplates musically where he is and what is happening to it every day, taking nothing for granted. “Ickerbrow Trig” is known to the Ordnance Survey as “High Brown Edge”. A book to return to many times.

Franca Mancinelli,
At an Hour’s Sleep from Here, poems 2007-2019,
translated by John Taylor.
The Bitter Oleander Press (New York) 2019 | Bilingual text. 254pp paperback |£28.00 $28.00.

This volume collects the lineated poems Mancinelli published before she turned to the prose-poem in The Little Book of Passage (2018) (excerpted here in The Fortnightly Review; a short review is here). They are mostly very short (4 to 8 lines) and much could be said about how within this slight frame so much is made to happen, how she will again and again present us with an intimate moment or act which is then effortlessly woven into a much more reverberant tableau. During the poem, or sometimes prior to it, acts of affection and desire are transformed intact into scenes of metamorphosis so delicately and justly that you hardly notice it happening.

NOON: An Anthology of Short Poems
Edited by Philip Rowland.
Isobar Press 2019 | 162pp paperback | £14.70 $20.00

Over 200 of them, drawn from the periodical of the same name, 2004-2017. This contemporaneity produces a scattered conceptual pastoral which together with the brevity tends to over-ride individuality; the dream is everybody’s because it is never fully related.

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 Collected Poems, containing work from 1962 to 2017, was published in two volumes by Shearsman in 2018, followed by Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls from Longbarrow Press in 2019. An earlier book, Due North, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 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.


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