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The Spring 2021 short shelf.

barbed rule

In Brief
By Peter Riley.

barbed rule

THESE ARE VERY brief notices. And I’ve divided most of them into two parts:

  • A description of the work, followed by…
  • An opinion (if I have one; it’s sometimes better not to).

Book Paradise
by Anthony Barnett.
Drawings by Lucy Rose Cunningham

Allardyce Book ABP 2021 | 62pp paperback. | $27.00

LINES OF LANGUAGE (English) which won’t say. Some of them just two or three words (e.g. “fluorescent puffin”), some of them cluster together and look like a short poem because they have grammatical structure but they still don’t say because they are isolated and defended from experience. Some of them become prose paragraphs, letters addressed to the reader, and do say but say evasively, say aside from the main issue that it would all be about if it were. I think considerable work and focus has gone into not meaning but leaving the meaning to us elsewhere, filling in all these holes or reconstructing words which have been erased. The book paradise remains a treasured and unsharable secret.

Whatever the reason, Anthony Barnett, after his long and adventurous career as a poet, shouldn’t have to be publishing himself1 and although these days the tone is dominantly skittish, the writing is still capable of veering into serious concern.

From a Council House in Connacht
by Ian Davidson.

Oystercatcher Press 2021 | 24pp pamphlet. | £5.00

PROSE PIECES GRAVITATING towards poetry, accounts of beginning to live in a small pastoral hamlet over the back of beyond with almost a view of the Atlantic, among a couple of sheep farms. Very calm in the careful and pointed handling of history as also in the anecdotal encounters. The ends of many of the pieces run continuously into a few short poem-like tags which are like notated moments of particular perception in that landscape, or more abstract ventures.

It’s heartening to recognise the honest craft of these encounters with people place and sheep. I’m not sure that the history is 100 percent right in the lurking polemic which emerges in the last piece. Or rather, all Irish problems as colonial problems might be only 90 percent, right?

Brimstone: a Book of Villanelles,
by John Kinsella.

Arc Publications 2020 | 78pp paperback | £9.04 $14.99

I HAVEN’T BEEN able to find a definition of the villanelle which agrees entirely with any other definition. The only modern villanelles in English I’ve been able to find which fulfil the details of the most strict definitions are those by William Empson and Dylan Thomas. The rule that says that there should be no more than two end-rhymes in the whole 19-line poem, including the two lines which are each repeated four times, is the most commonly set aside. The villanelle is conventionally thought of as a pastoral poem, which must have been a factor of John Kinsella’s attraction to it. But it is interesting to note that the villanelle of fully fixed structure has nothing to do with mediaeval French bucolics but was mainly a product of the late 1nineteenth century. Far from carefreeness it has lent itself notably to a weary, resigned or defiant sense of failure, emphasised by the repeated lines, as if the poem cannot get beyond the condition in which it opens but repeatedly collapses back into itself. Auden’s villanelles are very much in this tone.

Kinsella charges into the villanelle arena as a defiant orator, not fussy about following the rules…

Kinsella charges into the villanelle arena as a defiant orator, not fussy about following the rules but fairly strict with the repeated lines, sometimes adjusting details (only Elizabeth Bishop went so far as to completely re-write one of them, leaving only the last word in place). He does not take up the resigned and melancholy option, but brings to the pastoral the focused energy of his deep ecological concerns (exemplary insect and plant behaviour, etc.) and also his departures from norms of linguistic usage, which can be quite severe. This could itself be thought of as a form of pastoral, a play or dance of words moved to some distance from the official refusal to be concerned:

Will you or I ever break free of agri-pastoral rip-off rhetoric
without an interrogation of the rules of speech, the lapse of pronouns –
who are we to judge the affiliations of seed and beak?

Sixty-eight is actually rather a lot of villanelles.

Snow lit rev,
edited by Anthony Barnett and Ian Brinton.

No.9, 2021 | 192pp paperback. | $27.00

Noteworthy for “Movements, Monuments” – a substantial poem of passionate defeat and recuperation by D.S. Marriott. Otherwise much experimentality, Mandelstam’s Petrarch, Ralph Hawkins, things which turn out completely different from what you’d expect, etc.

Tears in the Fence no.73,
winter/spring 2021. edited by David Caddy et al.

188pp paperback. £10.00

No disrespect to poetry, fiction, criticism, even creative writing —Heaven forbid — but this is the usual medley in which you never know what you’ll find, and I think that if I were asked to name the most noteworthy item I’d have to say it was the two-page editorial by Louise Buchler, on anti-covid conditions in South Africa.

Books Received & Listed.2

Not reviewed because to do so I would have to enter into quite extensive discourse concerning the whole poetical ethos in operation which I’m either unhappy about or don’t understand. These poets do what they choose to do as they think fit, and I’ve no reason to suspect that they don’t do it very well.

Robert Sheppard
The English Strain.

Shearsman Books 2021 | 138pp paperback. | $20.00

Bad Idea.

The Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2021 | 102pp paperback | £11.00 $15.00

SUDDENLY, THE AVANT-GARDISTS are all having a go at Petrarch, I don’t know why. Now plus Wyatt, Surrey, Drayton, Milton and others. These are merely two volumes of a vast project to “transpose” vast quantities of sonnets. That is, works conceived as prose and made into poetry largely by chopping into lines. This epidemic involves poets widely different from each other (but all “innovative”) and whatever else is in it there is obviously a potential for damage if the quest for eloquence is disregarded or reversed. I think Sheppard turns it into a thoughtful, wide-ranging, genial, rather impersonal discourse and is willing to depart from the “original” to the ends of the earth. I’m also concerned at the version of the here and now which arises from these exercises when venerable lyric is crashed into the crudity of modern politics. Or perhaps I just don’t like the word “Brexit” in poems.

Alan Morrison
Anxious Corporals.
Smokestack Books 2021 | 162pp paperback | £7.99

Gum Arabic. (India) 2020 | 82pp paperback | $15.00

Morrison’s politics are serious accusations and he shows skill in handling the flow of the poeticised afflatus (one of his poems is here in The Fortnightly Review) rather more effectively in Gum Arabic, a collection of poems, than in Anxious Corporals, a diatribe which because of the long lines fills all 16o pages with a mass of print on the necessary subject of “the lost world of the self-educating working-class”3

The Leading Question,
by Roger Elkin.
The High Window Press 2021. 114pp paperback, $13.04.

The Leading Question is about the Irish famine and adopts the contrastive mode of placing the acts and terms of the well-off (absent, authoritarian and uncaring) alongside the horrific physical realities. It is obviously well researched and has good intentions, and perhaps I speak too strongly in saying that there are some good books on the Irish famine and I don’t really know why anyone needs poetry.

Buried Gods Metal Prophets,
by Maria Stadnicka.
Illustrated by Antonia Glücksman | Guillemot Press undated | 104pp card covers.

This is really an extraordinary book. All I know for sure is that it treats with scrupulous authenticity of a child with AIDS in a Romanian orphanage. I don’t know how it gets from there to the title, and I’d rather try to untangle the nature of the authorial function before attempting a review.

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. There is a Selected Poems from Shearsman Books.
  2. …or not understood.
  3. Other reasons – time and motion problems, aghast etc.

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