Reviews

 I will accept a limited number of poetry books and pamphlets for review from publishers only. I do not accept self-published books for review.  Publishers should get in touch with me at allegropoetry at gmail dot com with details of the book and I will let them know whether or not I have the capacity to review the publication. Reviews will appear on this page.

Sally Long (Editor)


Reviews

Julie Sampson, Fivestones, Lapwing, £10.00, ISBN: 978-1-7391642-7-0

Julie Sampson’s collection, Fivestones, interweaves a number of themes: the natural landscape, voices from the past including figures from history, writers or ancestors and also modern technology. Indeed, an interesting feature of the collection is how the poems speak both of the past and of contemporary life simultaneously.

In her writing about the natural landscape Sampson skilfully inverts the human presence within it. People can only be located in relation to the natural world around them. In ‘Lost in Galloway’ the speaker is ‘west of the pink-footed geese’ and ‘east of that red squirrel.’  There are many striking images in the poems. In ‘Only We Were Left’ we see ‘reed-beds with floating icons / of white –’ and in ‘On Such A Day’ on an autumn day ‘cyclamens will ghost the dying garden red.’

 The natural landscape that Sampson speaks so eloquently of is also populated by people from the past. In ‘Roots’ when observing plants growing around Budleigh, the speaker remembers her grandmother who died when she was very young:

‘I recall her forbears from these parts

Their fossil footfall litters the sandstone landscapes of this place.’

 

Likewise in ‘Mothers Of The Ancient Moor’ the speaker’s ancestors still inhabit the moorland:

 

Mine were silent.

Reclusive mothers of the ancient moor,

each found a niche inside the shelter of a granite shelf,

a closet cocooned with moss or fern,

there she cosseted, shielded her extended brood.

 

Fivestones includes a number of poems in memory of other writers. One is ‘Footloose, Fancy Free” which is in memory of Sylvia Plath and details a visit to her grave. Again, Plath has become part of the natural world. She cannot be found in the grave:

 

Find me instead

in the pallid face

of the paper-white narcissi.

 

The poem echoes Plath’s own poetry:

 

we are sheltered by the wise tree –

tasting darkest history and her

a brood of otherworldly wings.

She’s our and their mother.

We look up to her, we are her cherished children.

 

A sequence of poems, ‘South West’s Sea-Thyme’ is in memory of H.D. writer who lived part of her life in south-west England. This time the poems describe the natural world, ‘Flowers flung it in Devon’s cliff-crevices’ and H.D.is present through quotations from her poetry:

‘more precious/and a wet road/single on the stem/

you are caught in the drift,’ (Sea Rose)

 

Despite their concern with voices from the past the poems in Fivestones refer to modern technology as well. ‘You Know If You Look Hard Enough’ urges readers:

 

Go back to the older times –

just put aside

the techno-clocks,

the selfie sticks,

the twitter-speaks.

 

In ‘So Many Winter Poems’ a child escapes ‘indoors flashing screens’ yet poetry is also written and appears on the same ‘lit-up screens.’

 

At times the language of the poems seems over complex and abstract which can distract the reader from fully engaging with them. However, the overall effect of the collection is to present the reader with an enigmatic and haunting experience. Fivestones is an impressive collection of work.






Janet Hatherley, What Rita Tells Me, Dempsey and Windle, £8.50,

ISBN: 978-1-913329-77-8

One test of the quality of a collection of poetry is what lingers in the mind long after the poems have been read. In the case of Janet Hatherley’s What Rita Tells Me this is a strong evocation of people and place. The collection is unusual in being a sequence of poems about the poet’s childhood, growing up in a family where working hard to make ends meet is a daily reality.

 

There are subtle clues about the family’s circumstances in a number of the poems. In ‘Life without butter’ for instance:

‘Mum builds

a wooden sand pit in the garden, …
She spreads Stork margarine on our toast,’

and in ‘Sidings’

‘Our rent is cheap because Mum will clean the railway carriages for holidaymakers.


Sand hoppers come up through the floorboards — leap onto the sitting room carpet.’

 

Elsewhere there are critiques of racism. In ‘The Camp at Sumerpur (Rajputana)’ the two local doctors are:

 

‘able to practice in India but not England.’

 

In ‘From the horse’s mouth’ the reader catches glimpses of the divisiveness of the selective education system which taught working class girls to know their place:

 

‘Taught me, as a girl, to touch-type

at fifty words a minute …

 

Taught me to envy boys Gardening and Bee-keeping …

 

Taught me to expect to be a typist or a secretary.’


The high points of the collection are those poems which use rhyme or set form. The opening poem ‘Rescue from the sea’ uses rhyme to heighten the drama of an early childhood memory. Other highlights are ‘Ghazal: Through’ and the sestina ‘David, in the box room dark’.  It would have been good to have seen more rhyme and form. In particular some of the prose poems may have benefitted had they been haibun; a form which is well suited to life-writing.

 

Despite introducing the reader to different people in the poems Hatherley does not often let them speak in their own voices. An exception is the three-year-old neighbour, Lynne, from ‘Leaving 68 Tangier Road’ who threatens ‘If you don’t stop talking posh I’ll smash yer face in.’ There is also the poignant letter written by the speaker’s father in ‘From Dad’s letter, 3rd September 1969’. More voices like these would have added texture and energy to the collection.

 

All in all though, this is a warm and engaging sequence of poems.





John McKeown, Ill Nature, Mica Press, £10.00, ISBN 9781869848309

John McKeown’s latest collection is an intriguing combination of astute observations of people and the natural world. The poems, at their best, lead the reader to places that are easy to enter in the imagination but which leave more than a hint of the intangible which stays in the mind long after the book has been put down.

 

A number of poems touch on the subject of relationships. In ‘The Gold Standard’ McKeown writes:

 

Locked in a vault
         whose combination I’ve lost,
         lie, numbered, the still moist

petals of your smile.

 

There are glimpses of tenderness combined with the suggestion of longing and loss in this poem which are echoed in ‘Forgotten’ where the speaker evokes a sense of desolation:

 

                  The gathered

body of you is lifted

from my hands, floated out

into the stream, while I sit

on the bare bank,

fragmented as Ophelia.

 

But it is when he turns to the natural world that McKeown is at his best. There are stunning images: ‘The swifts, winged shrapnel’ and the opening stanza of ‘Swallows on Klimentsk√°’:

 

I pass beneath

the swallows’ swift net

of sung flight tight knit

between the roofs

 

Sometimes, though, the effect is spoilt by attempting to say too much. In the opening line of ‘Continental Drift’ the choice of ‘lugubrious’ distracts the attention and in ‘Buttercups’ the poet would have done well to have the reader contemplating buttercups floating ‘on stems so fine they’re invisible’. But the strongest poems are written with the confidence of the opening poem ‘Coming Down’ with its striking personification of the moon:

 

The full Moon up all night,

yellow-faced, like a light left on

at a party with all asleep,

hangs in the descent now

 

This is a collection which repays re-reading.