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A stack of Winter poetry 2021



barbed rule

By Peter Riley.

barbed rule
A Furnace
by Roy Fisher. Edited by Peter Robinson.

Flood Editions (Chicago) 2018 | New edition with preface, appendices, notes
108pp in thin card covers | $15.95 £10.00 (OUP ed.)

A Furnace is a desirable stand-alone edition of Fisher’s consolatory poem, breathing improvisatory tension into experience through topography (Birmingham and Peak District) and mortality. Elegant and austere design, and
_____What is it, this
_____sensation as of freedom?

Reaction Time of Glass
by James Peake.

Two Rivers Press 2019 | 52pp paperback | £8.19 $14.48

THE OCCASION OF each poem in Reaction Time of Glass is an item  of personal experience, a moment or a small set of events, immediately recognisable but usually raised somewhat above the level of the everyday and revealing something of our common condition or exceptions to it. “Isn’t that what everyone’s doing?” Yes, it is. But the result here is strikingly different from the usual because the life of the poem rests not on the occasion but on the poetical figures (simile, metaphor) which it attracts and which project its message out into a much larger arena than a show of ironies or comforts. Here are the first words to greet us after the title of the short first poem, “Storm”:

		The only storm we’d ever seen whole,
		as still as a building, waiting.

		A solid hour yet to the outermost rains
		almost coy with restraint when we met them.

		The dark adjusted us 
		like the dark of an aquarium. 

Conventionally the figures which emerge from the perceptions, one to each couplet, would be comparisons of like to like, so that the strength and violence of a storm may be realized in figures of violent movement or tension including frustration and anger. But here the storm is identified through its contraries: stasis and solidity (building), restraint and modesty (coy) – because such was the nature of the perception. The reactions of the observer are united with the properties of what is observed, each responsible for the other, so the figures do not agree with each other. They don’t need to because they are cemented together by the irrevocable sequence of the occasion and the paradoxes revealed inside it. So of course when the storm reached us our eyes did not adjust to the darkness: it adjusted us.

The ending of the poem (where the regular couplet-like prosody starts to break up) crowns this careful parade of contraries with an appeal to a larger sense of climactic event, as the aquarium-full of dark water, originally just a simile, descends on the car:

			I retired the wipers
		beneath a tonnage of suspended water

		rife with schools of shadow
		like a hundred harmonious species. 

Perception is here validated as itself the agent of harmony, seeing in the storm’s downpour a manifestation of forces united in opposition through poetical language.

Perception is here validated as itself the agent of harmony, seeing in the storm’s downpour a manifestation of forces united in opposition through poetical language. It’s not just that the figures are contrary; it is that they read as the results of a thought process which has undermined the unitary force of the event. Every word contributes precisely to the process whereby active and creative acts of perception uncover large-scale structures of opposition or contradiction in phenomena which are on the surface simple, as well as extensive manifestations of order (harmony) in violent events. 1

We search in vain through this book for many accepted qualities of the modern poem: there is no “Romantic” effusion, no shouting, no declarations about the world or anything else, no aiming at political or cultural issues (though there is some hinting in that direction) and neither is there any display of selfhood; the author is almost anonymous. There is in fact no generalisation: the narrative is a sequence of perceptions within what might seem an ordinary modern existence if we were told anything about it, though it readily involves intimacy and drama at home or on the other side of the earth. It is entirely metropolitan, a theatre of flyovers and Coke machines with never half a tree in sight and where “The TV watches us when it’s switched off.”  There are also poems entitled “Cy Twombly” and “Anselm Kiefer” which remain concerned with particular moments of perception in the presence of the paintings but are hardly about them. It is a singular voice noticing and recollecting, plainly notated and uncommented if it were not for the poetical figures which examine what has happened and locate a greater or contrasting distance, and do so instantly. So the settled and recognisable referent is immediately represented as a dynamic structure, as if it is opened up from the inside. What at first seemed like a retraction from the possibilities of modernism has taken on board extensive possibilities of linguistic insubordination.

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 book is to some extent arranged like an educational manual, in which the poetical process becomes progressively more prominent and difficult as you advance through it. In the more substantial poems in the later part of the book the figures, now always metaphorical, become impacted into the fabric of the poem and take over control of meaning. It becomes difficult or impossible to distinguish a basic scenario from its figurative elaboration. If we were to go back to the scene of the first poem, we would not know if it spoke of a storm likened to a building or a building likened to a storm. The climax of this development seems to be a poem near the end called “The New Elite” in which most of the full-stops have changed into commas, producing a block of solid apposition in which the main verb, if there was one, is not apparent. But still the process is figurative, now relating everything to its neighbour in the tone of the poet advancing into the lost city, for it is also a diatribe against both objective and subjective despoliation of the experience of metropolis in the attempt to move within the muddle of it.

Indemnity. Damnation. Limited Liability.
Bringing the rivers of hidden skulls
are the Bakerloo, Northern, Hammersmith
and City, six hundred bus routes, sponsored
bicycles and swollen pavements,
the names such a flow upholds,

logos rotate, fill with light, drain,
console incomers from the airport
or in tunnels, a joint and several dream,
the names to which names attach,
like upturned cards on a CV’s baize
or deactivated pass I found in a drawer,
my cheeks fuller,  landfill suit and tie
for a thousand days I can’t now distinguish,

One, Two
by Angela Leighton.

Carcanet 2020 | 146pp paperback | £12.99 $18.99

A NOTABLE THING about Angela Leighton’s verse is that there is little stress on direct transmission of personal experience. After all, in the success-zones of current poetry there is little else; the self is assumed as the governing factor of the poem because that’s all there is. So there is none of that “look at me” (being a poet, embodying issues) and there is not much irony. Rather than confess, she makes a story and a form, and seems to set it at a distance, and even when the “I” is predominant it is so in a very particular way, occupying a linguistic surface which is individual but public and so not easily intimate. Her intermittent fondness for a quite abstruse vocabulary which is by turns dialectic, technical, provincial, dated, lost or fictional (who remembers what exactly is or was a “darning-egg”?) and is intimate to the process of capturing and isolating episodes from a currency, which then become thematic. Some of the poems are grotesque, some are elegantly reticent, but there is a strong-armed and moving group of poems towards the end of the book concerned with the Coronavirus pandemic, not in terms of isolation and boredom but in terms of suffering and death. In the middle of them is a poem about Leoš Janáček literally notating as musical vocabulary his daughter’s dying struggle to breathe.2 The usual claim of relevance by analogy is not made; the poetical bracketing exposes the preservable substance of the event.

by Judith Willson.

Carcanet 2021 | 72pp paperback | £11.99 $16.99

IN HER SECOND book (the first is reviewed here; five of her poems are here and four more are here) Judith Willson turns to applied (or subject-based) poetry. The book is prefaced by a cutting from The East London Observer in 1878 about a woman called Eliza, charged at the magistrates’ court with deserting her two young children. She is found guilty and sentenced to three months’ with hard labour. This is repeated at the end of the book. The rest of the story is supplied by the back cover description, presumably authorial: “Almost nothing else is known of her life or that of her husband, a dealer in ‘foreign birds and curiosities’, who was himself a migrant.”

The poems represent the search for this Eliza, who is an ancestor of the poet. Apart from eight pages of prose which make the plot clear, the poems are concerned with what you might expect: examining documents, visiting cemeteries, treading in the footsteps, viewing addresses, hanging around meditatively in various places — the Essex Marshes, the Italian town Ancona (presumably where Eliza’s husband came from), the West India Docks and terminal of the underground River Fleet, the Fleet Prison… But the point is that the poems do not engage positively with this quest. Eliza cannot be resurrected by any of this, nor can she become known or realized in the poet’s imagination. The only documentary result is that she was in Mile End Workhouse for seven years doing laundry, and her death date, but there is no grave. She remains as unknown at the end as she was at the start. Her entire surviving language is one sentence beginning “I did not desert my children…” But she is also, by the attention she has from the poetry, the image of a constant female hope, ephemeral and sturdy, a deified laundress —

		Think of Eliza,  think her
		glancing shadow
		in shadows of big-bellied shirts
		cool hollows of sheets in full sail
		across Dock Street, light in her face
		fanning open and shut.
		Oh girl Hecate Circe Medea
		riding the tideway in the eye of the wind

The whole ambience of the book is one of time passing beyond our reach and all connections dissolving.

The poems are there for their own sakes. Many do not explicitly engage with the quest for Eliza but are centred on memory itself, and transmission, or lack of it, across lives and generations. In some cases they are just about being there, in the streets of the East End, whether brought there by the quest or not, faced with endless housing in what in Eliza’s day was fields and villages. The challenge to the poet is to bring the poem to a conclusion when the whole ambience of the book is one of time passing beyond our reach and all connections dissolving. It helps that the texture is quite “modernistic”, thus eroding the sense of a connected discourse leading to a goal, with minimal punctuation, citation of parts of old songs which interrupt the serious business of the quest, and sensitive use of multiple or floating margins–

the river brings back what it takes…..lost things
orbit in its currents
…………………………until something of them returns

a flower on a flake of china
……………………….a pattern recollected
in the space between tides

On the Nature of the Universe Book I
by Lucretius,
translated and introduced by Emma Gee.

Arc Publications 2020 | 116pp paperback | £11.00 $15.99

LUCRETIUS HAS NEVER been exactly a quick read with cocoa before bed-time. I have made several incursions into his poetry in my time, and found it not so much remote (which Emma Gee seeks to mend) as relentless and demanding. If you leave it for a few days you have to steel yourself to resuming it, knowing there will be a lot more continued exposition with little in the way of idyll. But it can be rewarding if the reader agrees to the thoughtful application that the text demands. I have found Emma Gee’s version helpful in clarifying sticky passages and in rushing me through lengthy disquisitions towards the point.

Just about all translation… is now “after” — it is a “version” because it has to be made available to the “now” reader.

But the reading experience is completely different. Just about all translation, especially of pre-modern texts, is now “after” — it is a “version” because it has to be made available to the “now” reader. Exactly what kind of person that reader is remains in question. Does his/her vocabulary include “turn me on”? “zany”? Does her/his comprehension rely on recognising echoes of W.H. Auden, R.D. Laing and suchlike? Is he/she without sense of passing millennia and how little they sometimes matter?

There’s no need to go on about this. For the greatest part she does exactly what she says she does, modernises freely in substance as well as vocabulary, but remains faithful to the text in at least a paraphrastic sense. Mainly she chops the text up into small pieces with short (but not lyrical) lines — bite-size you could say, so that you could take a breather every few lines. The element of dumbing down is not pervasive, indeed it is sometimes entertaining, and she doesn’t always shy away from sublimity. But the rewriting sometimes goes to the extreme of becoming a comment on Lucretius rather than anything he ever wrote.

The entire Latin text is included in sections of 50 lines or so, interspersed with the translation. I find this puzzling since the book surely aims itself specifically at the non-Latin reader, and those who can manage to make out roughly what’s going on will find it difficult to compare Gee’s version in detail since it might be very different from the original. I think the point is that she wants to reproduce “the sonic and rhythmic effects of the Latin, in a form which can be grasped by users of smartphones”. The assumption here, that the reduction of line-length by about half makes no difference, is problematic. A glance at the Latin suggests that what mainly holds Lucretius’ sonic and rhythmic effects is the long line itself, the hexameter, with its invitation to extended syntax and steady succession of syllabic play.

The opening lines—

Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divumque voluptas,
alma Venus…

Rouse and Smith (1975)–

Mother of Aeneas and his race, darling of men and gods, nurturing Venus, who beneath the smooth-moving heavenly signs fill with yourself the sea full-
laden with ships…

Emma Gee—

Imagine there’s a god
a goddess even
let’s call her the Goddess of Love
no Botticelli Venus climbing out of a shell
but Nature – anarchic Aphrodite
she builds things up and then kicks them
down again like an angry toddler.

The modern reader, then, at least sometimes needs it completely rewritten, as this is, apparently on the basis that the antiquity of a word like “goddess” might well upset or mystify the now-reader, who needs to be protected by introducing it in easy stages and contraries, and the name Venus best avoided. And yet these terms are surely easily understood by anyone regardless of belief. And why the introduction of Botticelli’s painting as a counter, when in the original there is no such negative comparison?

Great Venus, Queene of beautie and of grace,
The ioy of Gods and men, that vnder skie
Does fayrest shine, and most adorne thy place;
That with thy smyling looke doest pacifie
The raging seas, and makst the stormes to flie.

(Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene Book IV Canto 10 stanza 44)

Lucretius was 2000 years ago, Spenser a mere 500, and yet his near-literal poetical transcript is evidently no problem, though Spenser’s substitution of beauty for historical fecundity might give pause for thought. In Gee’s version the female ideal is infantilised.

Whatever I say, the idea of a kind of rollicking Lucretius was so outrageous that the book deserves to be a success.

Republic of Dogs / Republic of Birds
by Stephen Watts.

Prototype 2020 (second edition) | Unpaginated, thin card bound | £10.21

ONE HUNDRED AND forty-four short prose pieces written in the late 1980s and discovered in 2012. This is elegant and virtuosic in its persistent pursuit of authentic positive resolution through sites and fragments, distance and privacy, in search of the script of the city. A more complete review to come, hopefully.

Poetry Birmingham
Issue 5 | Autumn-Winter 2020
Edited by Suna Afshan and Naush Sabah.

174pp paperback | £9.95

THIS IS JUST what a poetical relic like me (and there are a lot of us) needs in order to keep abreast of what younger poets are doing these days. Professionally produced, lavishly (if strangely) illustrated, but above all intelligently and generously edited. And how young they all (most of them) are, and with what authority they speak. It’s not the I’m the boss around here that it used to be, and it’s not the I am extraordinarily interesting which floods the market these days. It’s an authority gained from direct involvement in what is going on and serious application to the possibilities and demands of the poem. The young (one assumes) poets gathered or reviewed here come from all over the place with some emphasis on the local, generally in a mode something like lyrical statement, with not too much of the energy locked in the academy and not too many short-listed for this and that. The reviews are diverse and include dissent from the editorial line. If an occasional breather or some sense of stability is needed there are articles on pre-young items such as Marina Tsvetaeva, a discussion between two Forward Prize judges and, most surprisingly, Robert Frost — but why not? Frost could write a good poem from time to time.

The magazine is sharply concerned with the possible inherence of racism in “white” writing, which is a treacherous ground for the uninitiated (of any colour) to venture on. You need to sweep the ground before you with a mine detector. But I feel the discussion of the subject, mainly in the editorials, is properly weighed and aware of the dangers of assuming a given right to the final adjudication. It could perhaps be clearer concerning the channels of infection, whether they should be recognised as social, psychological or economic, if they are precisely definable at all. That would help.

Speaking of Birmingham, I wonder if they have acknowledged Roy Fisher?


as nettles and ivy permit
by Peter Dent.

Kaleidikon 2020 | 36pp stapled pamphlet.

Peter Dent has issued a large number of these self-produced pamphlets as preludes to his paperbacks. They get clearer and work well as ironical modernism.

In a Broken Star
by Norman Fincklestein.

Dos Madres Press (USA) 2021 | 84pp paperback 2021 | $18.00

See some of his poetry here but don’t confuse him with the political commentator of the same name.

I’m Working Here: The Collected Poems
by Anna Mendelssohn. Edited by Sara Crangle.

Shearsman Books 2020 | 780pp paperback | £31.99 $52.98

Poetics of Still Life: a collage
By Robert Vas Dias.
Permanent Press 2020 | 156pp paperback, with 65 plates. Edition of 150 copies signed. £25.00.

Consists of 65 full-colour plates of still-life paintings each accompanied by quotations from authorities and writing by Vas Dias, mostly poetry.

FINALLY, FOR THOSE in pursuit of poetry in Catalan, Fum d’Estampa Press (London) has issued The Silent Letter by Jaume Subirana translated by Christopher Whyte (free and hopeful international modern). Bilingual text. 122pp paperback. £12.00. Also: One Day of Life is Life by Joan Maragall (1860-1911 and clearly fin de siècle), 320pp paperback.

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.


  1. I remain uncertain about the contribution of some words, such as “retired” – in the sense of withdrawn from a conflict? And “schools” — as in school of whales or places of instruction? These and others are easily possible within the process of the poem.
  2. In summary, this sounds weird, and I don’t know if it is factual, but Janáček did devise a method of extracting musical material from human speech and natural sound. See Janáček: Leaves from His Life, edited by Vilem and Margaret Tausky, 1982, pp.115-6 for annotation of sea waves. The result is not “program music”.

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