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)


David Ricks, With Signs Following, Two Rivers Press, £11.99 ISBN: 978-1-915048-19-6

 David Ricks’s collection, With Signs Following, does not shy away from difficult subjects. The opening poem, ‘Prelude’ describes the plight of a skier caught in an avalanche. Ricks employs personification as the speaker describes the avalanche, ‘A weight of snow that’s waited up all night / Just for the fun of seeing a skier blanch.’ This humorous approach serves to make the avalanche even more menacing. As its title suggests ‘Prelude’ sets the tone of the poems to follow.

 The first poem in the main collection appears to be about a bull fight. The reader can visualise the matador, ‘as dainty as a doll’ in the first stanza. However, the conclusion of this short poem refers to an artistic depiction of the martyrdom of St Bartholomew:


In sleep’s place, here comes Saint Bartholomew

Holding a knife and – draped over one arm

Casually, like a pale cape – his own skin.


Ricks then writes about the troubles in Northern Ireland in a poem with the understated tile, ‘Incident’. A pastor recounts for a film crew what happened when he led his congregation in worship and an extract of a tape recording of the service is played:


Whether by custom or by premonition,

The worshippers had a tape recorder running.

At the verse, Are ye washed in the blood of the Lamb?

We hear the sound of automatic fire.


The collection moves on from this treatment of the Darkley Hall Massacre to a paramilitary funeral in ‘Jack in the Box’. Again, the poem’s powerful effect is achieved by simple description of events without comment:


The shops are kindly

Requested to close

As a mark of respect,


And sad captains

Have hooded their heads

To pose with their pistols:


A number of other poems in the collection treat difficult subject matter through a straightforward narrative account but in ‘Second-Hand’ Ricks takes a different approach. The focus of the poem is a second-hand copy of Mein Kampf which, as its inscription shows, was given as a gift in 1939. The speaker tries to imagine who the giver and recipient were and ponders on whether or not their views might have changed as events in Europe unfolded. This change of approach forms a pleasing contrast with the preceding poems.

 There are a number of notable poems throughout With Signs Following: ‘Fecit’, ‘Genius Loci’ and ‘Mackonochie Chapel’ among them. ‘Fecit’ is a response to Thomas Hardy’s earliest poem, ‘Domicilium’. Ricks makes the sixteen lines of this poem work hard. There is a strong metaphor in which Hardy is compared with an alderman taking part in a brick laying. This metaphor is extended as ‘Domicilium’ is seen as the foundation of Hardy’s subsequent work. This work remains like a house which survives the death of its owner. The metaphor is apt as Hardy’s poem is, of course, about a house.

 ‘Genius Loci’ is a short poem of just seven lines and again Ricks demonstrates his skill in saying so much in a small space. The poem is set in St Mary’s Church, Helsingør, where an organist is playing a piece of music by Buxtehude. The music has the effect of transporting the hearer to an earlier time and gives an impression of what the church and its congregation would have been like then. Ricks conveys the magical effect of the music:


And even those in doubt may see the little

Tutelary ship high in the nave

Dance and then settle on a calming sea.


The echo of ‘see’ with ‘sea’ brings the poem to a satisfying conclusion.

 ‘Mackonochie Chapel’ is another poem which is set in a church and reflects on its past. In this case the church is St Alban the Martyr, Holborn. The great strength of this poem is the rhyme or half-rhyme at the ends of the first and third lines of each triplet, for example:


You ministered to for twenty years with love.

Today, from your richly decorated niche,

Recumbent, it may be that you absolve


Maybe this form suggests the orderly repetition of the high church rituals which led to the former priest of the parish, Alexander Mackonochie, being prosecuted by Church authorities.

 At times the poems contain arresting imagery. ‘Postcard’ opens with ‘That restaurant’s plastic chairs / White as sepulchres’. In ‘Still-Life with Musical Instruments’ one vivid image follows another:


A clarinet’s

Open mouth. A spinet


Reticent as a tiny


 At the end a lute is said to be ‘dead in its shell’.

 These visual images, combined with the precision of the line breaks, serve to convey something of the arrangement of the objects in the painting on which the poem is based,

 In his working life Ricks was an academic with modern Greek poetry being among his research interests. His collection includes several versions of poems by contemporary Greek poets. ‘Solitude’ (Kostis Palamas) and ‘The Ships’ (Konstantinos Chatzopoulos) are especially noteworthy.

 ‘Solitude’ achieves its effect though the use of rhyme or half-rhyme. The first two stanzas have a regular pattern as evidenced in particular in the second stanza:


Here a haven.

None to intrude.

Seek not to leaven

My solitude.

 The rhyming pattern of the concluding stanzas is more complex. Perhaps here is a subtle indication of the way in which solitude can be disturbed by troubling thoughts.

 As Ricks says in his notes that ‘The Ships’ is an example of poésie pure. Here the sound of the language, rather than its meaning and ability to sustain a narrative, is all important. There is much repetition within ‘The Ships’ which is perhaps reminiscent of the sestina:


And eyes open to the blur

and eyes as if lost in a vision,

and eyes smothered by the blur

look out on the ships afar,

ships as if lost in a vision.


The frequent reoccurrence of key words gives the poem a surreal, dream-like quality. ‘Vision’ reappears near the end of the poems and ‘eyes’ are mentioned in the penultimate line.

 With Signs Following poses a number of questions, not least of these is the ethical question of how other people’s trauma can be written about in literature. Of course, there are no simple answers. Ricks usually chooses to keep to facts whereas other writers might utilise the imagination more in order to provide distance and anonymity.

 As it is obvious to the reader that many of the poems are based on written sources another question for the poet is how much information to provide about those sources. In the case of some poems Ricks provides more information in notes at the end of the collection. Perhaps it would have been helpful at times to have provided more information about the sources behind other poems.

 Whenever a poet translates from another language there are always decisions to be made about how to strike a balance between faithfulness to the original and ensuring that the English version is good poetry in its own right. Without access to the original poems it is not possible to comment on how Ricks makes his choices.

 The strengths of the collection are many of the shorter poems and the vivid imagery in some poems. It would have been good to have seen more moments where an image lifts a poem from the page and really engages the reader. With Signs Following is not always an easy read but there are many gems within it. 

Martha Kapos, Music, Awake Her: Selected and New Poems, Two Rivers Press, £12.99 ISBN: 978-1-915048-18-9


Martha Kapos’s Music, Awake Her: Selected and New Poems, makes a strong start with the opening poem, ‘Pulse’:


If the heart is a house my parents
live there separated by a wall.

Tall rooms are secretly linked
by long muscular stairs, a pyramid
of light I travel up to the point
of their joining.  

This poem skilfully considers the relationship between the speaker and her parents. It is a poem that continually poses questions of the reader. Are the parents dead or are they merely separated from the speaker? Is the speaker an adult looking back over time or a child?


Then the dark house makes

untranslated language in the night:


pound and pound, pound

overheard from my bed.


The fact that these questions are not resolved is the mark of the poem’s strength.


Equally enigmatic is ‘The Sea Child’, a poem which uses the extended metaphor to describe the sea:


The sea was banging its crib.
          It was rocking back and forth
          in the small turmoil

of a child in a dark room alone.


At times it seems as though Kapos has moved away from the metaphor to explore other images:


But each dumb shape just lolled
          without insisting

like a dead tongue on a slab


but then returns to the child metaphor as the sea was, ‘dreaming of the tenderness of milk.’ This leaving and returning to the opening metaphor mirrors the action of waves as they seemingly retreat from a beach only to return once more.


‘The Blackberry’ is another poem which has rich imagery. The opening three couplets set the tone of the poem:


          Your face is a cipher when your smile
          splays out into the many

          double directions a child takes on a walk
          twirling a stem of grass in an erratic 

circle of two minds

Do I want this? Do I want this?


The poem continues, apparently describing the picking and eating of a blackberry, ‘you softly swallow, intact in your mouth / the round knob of syllables. Yet, as is often the case in Kapos’s poems there is another layer of meaning beneath the surface. At the conclusion of the poem the blackberry is revealed as a symbol of other, darker things:


Smash it like the toy you didn’t want
         against a wall. If you could only 

hold everything dark-coloured on your tongue

forever without breaking:


While talking about blackberries, a poem later on in the collection picks up the imagery of the earlier poem. ‘The Blackberry Paths’ also appears to be about going on a walk and picking and eating blackberries:


Her small hand locked
         inside his, everywhere the strewn

evidence in plain sight, small black globes


But this impression is quickly set aside as the speaker begins to suggest something else is going on. The ‘small black globes’ are:


an open secret big enough to touch.
         But why do the berries have their fat

knuckles clenched and not let go?


The ending of the poem picks up an image from the earlier poem, suggesting the two are linked and that the poet is exploring similar ideas:


         But the hidden syllables slide out into the open.
         Well, go ahead. Why not reach out?
         Her fingers at last coming to the point

         he drops her hand and says And there shall be for thee all soft delight


The lack of a full stop at the end of the poem is telling. The questions posed have not been resolved and the enquiry is ongoing in the mind of the reader.


While a number of poems in Music, Awake Her are composed of couplets and tercets ‘The Night Kitchen’ illustrates Kapos’s ability to write poetry with longer stanzas giving an entirely different impression on the page. This poem once more opens with tremendous imagery:


Outside extinct stars hang
         like scrunched-up letters thrown
         around the floor. The earth is poised
         on a hook above the sink.
         An enormous sponge sits planetary and alone

in its enamel dish.


The speaker describes an ordinary kitchen at night, naming objects that would be found in any similar kitchen which was worn and had seen better days. There is a cracked glass, a chipped draining board, a dishcloth and J - cloths yet this scene is transformed into something mystical by the juxtaposition of the mundane with the mythical and cosmic:


and if the bubbles coming on and going out
         range themselves in a white ring big
         as the Crab Nebula, and if I’m floating
         inches above the ground, the pocket in my apron
         growing into a pouch so large that it could hold
         Medusa’s head, J-cloths flapping


from my heels like the wings of Mercury


By contrast, ‘Night Music’ is a single sentence which is spaced out on the page in single lines:


Their voices are the muffled stuff of breath, a broken river

 she can hear rustling its constant music behind walls

 then hurrying their mouths through a door she can never keep

 entirely shut, the whispering is running up the stairs


This poem returns to an earlier idea of a child awake in bed listening to parents.


Given Kapos’s skill and versatility it would have been good to have seen what she could do with set forms like the sonnet, terza rima or sestina, the latter seemingly well-fitted to Kapos’s desire to return to themes and explore them from different angles. But that issue apart, Music, Awake Her is a rewarding collection for the reader.

Paul McDonald, Sixty Poems, Greenwich Exchange, £9.99 ISBN: 978-1-910996-72-0


Paul McDonald’s new collection, Sixty Poems, delivers what it says in the title. Here is a collection of poems which range over topics as diverse as an infestation of wasps, the artist Van Gough and scenes from the Black Country. Yet despite its diversity Sixty Poems has an inner cohesion drawn from the fact that a number of poems are linked by theme even though McDonald does not label them as a sequence.


One example is a series of poems about dementia. McDonald deals sensitively with the progress of the disease beginning with diagnosis in ‘Dementia Butterfly’:


Time will regress you
         from hereon. Soon you’ll be a
         child, then eternal
         like grass. Change is part of life
         you say. Ask a butterfly.


The regression is charted in further poems including ‘Dementia Roast’ and ‘Dementia Morning’. 

Here, in ‘Dementia Roast’ the stanza break skilfully signifies the dislocation caused by dementia:


         you can’t place
         the absent faces now,
         retrieve the morning’s fragments,
         the broken ritual

of family lunch.


‘Dementia Morning’ attempts to convey the confusion experienced by the person with dementia:


 Quakes quicken breath beneath a
          stale vest, desk-top fan wheezing at
          your elbow. Is it summer?

 Mornings magnify surprises:
          wire mesh windows, hexagon shadows,
          door hinges squeaking conspiracies.

Of course, it is impossible to say how far these words mirror the experience of a person with dementia and perhaps, for this reason, other poems on the theme are more successful. In ‘Dementia Banking’, for example, the speaker observes the behaviour of a person with dementia and records the observer’s initial denial that anything is really wrong, ‘We blamed the era she was born, rationing, / the burgeoning weightlessness of being.’ It is only later on that the speaker realises what is happening and takes action:

          When we hid her debit card she hunted it
          like Gollum, upturning furniture with
          crack addict zeal, craving it: the visible-invisible
          to anchor her like solid gold boots

This poem concludes with a strong rhyming couplet

                            And we should check inside
the curtain rods, the cistern, her gutted books.
         He’d known them be inventive, devious as crooks.

 Sixty Poems includes many memorable images. In ‘A Lecturer Retires’ ‘Quiet descends like / chalkdust,’, in ‘Bicycle Thieves’ ‘The Piazza Vittorio is a / slaughterhouse of spares:’ and in ‘Rooms for Tourists’ ‘wood absorbed the wind’s purr’. There are some excellent character studies, for example in ‘Father and Son’ and ‘Cezanne and the Gardener’. In the latter poem McDonald captures something of the essence of both the artist and his subject:

        You make him weightless as a
         swallowtail settled on a wicker chair; …

         Who but you
         would paint away the shadows,
         set summer free to fade his

shirt, bleach his shoes and beard?


However, McDonald showcases his best work in the opening poem, ‘Queen’. Here the poet writes about an infestation of wasps which begins with a single wasp in March and grows to a colony which is doomed for destruction over the course of the year. McDonald conveys the fascination of the colony as it grows:


It began in March with a single wasp

entering an air-vent beneath our house…

         hexagons of cardboard cells
         in the fabric of our home.
         We let her be, let her feel free 

to thrive in the cavity we owned.
         How many thousand yellow jackets
         seethed in the darkness?


Yet also something of its menace:


By May we could sense ourselves surrounded:

netted routes of industry …


light fittings buzzed with the engine of wasps.

By October they were curls of angry static,


Overall, Sixty Poems is a collection which promises much and delivers in abundance.

Christopher Southgate, Losing Ithaca, Shoestring Press, £10.00, ISBN 978-1-915553-25-6


Christopher Southgate’s collection, Losing Ithaca, promises the reader an epic journey that treats mythology and loss among other subjects. It does not disappoint. Southgate is able to present a range of themes in sections that interrelate and enter into dialogue.


The collection opens with a section of poems about loss. The first of these, ‘Notes from a ditch near Troy’, interweaves allusions to mythology with an insightful commentary on the way that grief is handled in contemporary Britain:


After such a death we should sit on the ground

Tearing our clothes and throwing dust on our heads.

We put on suits and unaccustomed ties

Ushered about by professionals in practised solemnity.


Southgate manages to capture both the rawness of grief and the inability of society to come to terms with death.


Other poems in the same section deal with loss of various kinds. In ‘London St Pancras International’ personal grief is placed alongside the loss of Ukrainian refugees fleeing war. Another poem ‘Rose-Petals’ deals with a different type of loss:


For my mother’s wedding

my grandmother picked all the petals

off her roses, for friends to scatter on the couple


She threw beauty at her loss.


The closing poem of the section, ‘Year Five’ is one of the highlights of the collection. The speaker recognises that grief is not short lived but persists over the years. The recurrence of feelings of bereavement are compared with losing a foothold during a climb:


What is the reminder of grief like?

Like losing one’s footing on a crag

and being swept down a waterfall.


This simile captures the unbidden and unstoppable nature of these emotions.


The second section of the collection comprises a sequence of poems around the number ‘six’. This device enables Southgate to link disparate topics but does, perhaps, lead to individual poems within it being less strong than others in the collection. However, there are a number of effective poems. In the opening poem, ‘Six Reasons Why I Am In Love With Greta Thunberg’, the speaker drops hints about climate change without mentioning it directly:


Five. My six great nephews and nieces are relying on her

And I love their bright and wondering eyes

And their passionate playful hearts.


It is this ability to allude to issues that is one of the collection’s great strengths.


Another strength is the way that the different sections interlinked with each other

‘Six Reasons Why I Will Never Throw Away My Mother’s Address Book’ picks up on the personal grief of the first section. After reminiscing on his mother’s life the speaker says:


… And wrong, I am certain – all cannot be flux –

the person she was, the hope, the passionate

internal journey, somewhere, surely, persists.


In these few words Southgate expresses the perpetual hope that something of a beloved person survives death. The final poem of the sequence, ‘And On The Sixth Day?’ is a reflection on the biblical creation story. The theme of this poem introduces the third section which is based on biblical stories.


One danger of writing poems based on biblical stories is that so many poems have been written upon them before that it is hard to avoid cliché. One poem that manages a fresh approach extremely well is ‘The Takes At Emmaus’. The speaker is a film director who is working out how the story of the walk to Emmaus could be presented as a film. The poem contrasts the brash confidence of the speaker, ‘here I can do better than the script writer,’ with the intangible nature of his subject, ‘just the unquestioning surface of the wine, / the bread parted – laid out in blessing.


Other highlights of the collection are ‘Swifts’ which employs swifts as a metaphor for love and ‘Eulogy At The Memorial Service For Glacier’ which again alludes to climate change. Both poems have haunting endings, this from ‘Swifts’:


               One day

Swifts will roost and close their wings

Let it not be soon.


The final couplet of ‘Eulogy At The Memorial Service For Glacier’ reads, ‘Your resurrection will await the next ice age – / hard to imagine we shall keep you company then.’ The device of writing eulogy for a glacier takes the reader back to other poems in the collection which speak of grief.


Losing Ithaca is overall a convincing collection which deals with difficult topics with great sensitivity and skill.

Clare Best, Beyond the Gate, Worple Press, £12.00, ISBN 978-1-905208-50-0

Clare Best’s latest collection Beyond the Gate is wide ranging covering diverse themes spanning astute observation of the natural world, family relationships, industrial heritage and grief. The poems encompass a variety of styles including prose poetry, shape and found poetry which is used to good effect.


A striking use of found text is ‘After your procedure’ where Best tackles the difficult subject of abortion. Here she skilfully combines website text with her own commentary on the emotional affects of having and abortion. Text and commentary are presented as a shape poem. The poem has to be viewed on the page to experience the full impact.

Another highlight of the collection is ‘My son’s first leather boots’ where the poet explores the depth of a mother’s love for her child. This is presented as something that is intangible and mysterious:


It’s not scuffed toes, heels worn down

in one particular place …

         …  It’s this: I have to close my door, sit

quietly and alone with love and mystery.


Best delves into the industrial past in ‘salt works’ and ‘Field Notes, Horsmonden furnace pond’. The former poem is based on notes made by Charles St Barbe, a nineteenth century saltern owner. The text is arranged in two columns and this means that the poem can be read down one column then down the other or from left to right across the page. The different readings skilfully produce layers of meaning:


when the sea boils               6 days & 6 nights

tide is admitted                   flowing fast


from high to low                into feeding ponds

thin grey brine                   passing in troughs


in level partitions               of sun & wind

until the last hour              when coal is burned  


In the second poem past and present are interweaved through alternating sections which intersperse descriptions of birds that now live in the habitat of Horsmonden furnace pond with pictures of the same place in the seventeenth century when it was the site of an iron foundry:

drizzle brings swallows

fieldfares chiffchaffs blackcaps

great crested grebes


200 furnace workers

+ miners woodcutters charcoal-burners

luggers of timber and ore to the furnace

pig iron from furnace to forge

three mandarin drakes fly in

cormorants red-legged partridge

a charm of goldfinch


Although Best conjures a vivid impression of the past in other poems she also writes well about the contemporary world as in ‘Browsing at my desk, May 2020’. This is a found poem drawn from the poet’s browsing history:


Prohibited & Restricted Goods / Post Office

subscribe to read La Peste images of boats on sea

Coronavirus: Advice and updates Redirect View

virtual festivals 2020 & 2021 artistssupportpledge – Bing


Greenpeace UK international womens day

Authentication Service Log in to Facebook Love

in the Time of Cholera Jessye Norman – Les Chemins

de l’amour (Poulenc) grief and condolence – Bing


The device of creating a poem from this source has the effect of recreating the fragmented online world that many people inhabited during lockdown.


Many poems in the collection draw on Best’s observation of the natural world. In the opening poem the speaker writes about the experience of spotting a heron in her garden:


From my upstairs window, I saw a heron

perched on the neighbour’s roof, looking rough –

like it hadn’t slept in weeks. Exhausted, like me.


Unfortunately, this poem lacks the numinous quality of many of the others in the collection. The title, ‘A heron in a poem might seem a cliché’ references the fact that there are a large number of well-known poems which refer to herons. Maybe some sense of dialogue with a few of them would have lifted this particular heron poem.


For the most part Beyond the Gate showcases the work of an adroit and engaging poet. 

Ruth O’Callaghan, Where Shadow Falls, Two Rivers Press, £10.99,


Ruth O’Callaghan’s intriguing collection Where Shadow Falls deftly leaves the reader with more questions than answers. The best poems have a dream-like fragility about them where thoughts merge into one another.


The language in many poems is beautiful. The opening poem ‘Portmanteau’ speaks of ‘his breviary of frailties, / wisps of myths and other, darker, signs:’ This early promise is repeated in other poems. In Folie ‘Silence has spread its skirt – a can-can dancer flashing /

intimate possibilities’ and in ‘Acknowledgement’ ‘she fingered each bead caught /

on a string of lies, a threaded promise.’


The tone of the poems changes abruptly in section II. Here O’Callaghan deals with contemporary issues and while this illustrates her range as a poet it is hard for the reader to adjust to more abstract or harsh language. In ‘So’ O’Callaghan includes short quotes from songs in italics. The speaker reminisces about school days talking of ‘sixties sex, hitchin’ ’n fuckin’ in foreign fields that’d fornever be England,’. This style of language occurs elsewhere. In ‘Jonesy’ the speaker says of poetry.


                                  It’s just crap

words thrown down in short lines ’cos

poets can’t make a sentence like you’d find

even in any freebie rag you grab at the station


Even allowing for the fact that O’Callaghan is deliberately creating a discordant voice here these poems work less well than many in her collection.


A highlight of the collection is ‘Cover’. Here O’Callaghan enters into a dialogue, first of all with Maggi Hambling’s ‘Conversation’ which is the cover image for Angela Leighton’s collection, Spills:


Hard to ascribe gender to these conversationalists,

difficult to hear their particular take on Leighton’s Spills:


and then with Spills itself:

                                              a Simon of Cyrene, who hefts

the weight of that cross over harrowed fields, dark

scarring the sky.

Below, a fracture of bone denotes location

where once the worthless were laid;


This is a fascinating approach to the ekphrastic poem. 

Overall, Where Shadow Falls is a collection which is worthy of careful reading and re-reading.

Steve Lang, Tales of Telemachus, RESOURCE Publications, £8.00,

ISBN: 978-1-6667-6563-2

Steve Lang’s collection, Tales of Telemachus, is wide ranging in its subject matter. As expected from its title, Lang writes a number of poems based on mythology. One particularly eye-catching poem is ‘Icarus’ with its striking description:

So detached, my feathers
Dwindle down, twirling,
Lost overblown snowflakes, …

A macabre doll flung,
I plunge, screaming, through them,
Hastening to my fate:

Telemachus also features in ‘Telemachy’ and ‘Athena Mentors Telemachus’. The arresting opening lines of the first of these poems showcase Lang at his best:

There swelled a sense of loss,
Of bereavement,
Like a rising mist,
That slowly betrays
The breath-taking breadth
And depth of the chasm,
Or a rip-tide
Pulling me farther from shore,

In the second poem alliteration is employed effectively: ‘father, found finally,’ and ‘Sweet the shrill song of the swords unsheathed,’. Given the title of the collection, Lang might have profitably included more poems like these.

Although many of the poems have a gentle, lyrical quality Lang does not shy away from difficult subjects as evidenced in a number of poems about El Salvador. One of these stands out above the rest. ‘El Mazote’ which recounts the story of the sole survivor of a massacre:

What can you smell from your tree, Rufina?
Burnt flesh.
Sick sweetness of crushed, overripe mangoes;

 Given the subject of the poem it is appropriate that it ends with an unanswered question; ‘What can you feel in your tree, Rufina?’

Across the collection Lang demonstrates his versatility as a poet. He includes a number of haiku including ‘Madrigal’, Hummingbird and ‘Dragonflies’:

Two dragonflies joined
In coitus in dashing flight
Elation defined

 The collection is prefaced by a well-crafted sonnet ‘Prologue’:

Too coy the haiku- Horatian the ode,
A villanelle reels- a limerick’s too light;
A little lugubrious, for me, the ballad,
Too desperate to soar the elegy’s height.
No, to page and poet, a blessing’s the sonnet-

There is also the concrete shape poem ‘And Breathe …’ which is not quoted here as it needs to be seen and read in its entirety on the page.

If the poems in Tales of Telemachus are anything to go by Lang is a poet who deserves to be widely read.

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 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 Klimentská’:


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.