The much-missed Les Murray, writing about David Morley, highlighted his capacity to achieve a ‘refraction of the familiar.’ Emma Simon’s Smith/Doorstop pamphlet competition winner The Odds (2019) shares this ability to imbue the everyday with a shining radiance. Mundane details are given a twist of the Gothic as in a pub’s Hades-like cellar (‘The World’s End Pub’); or a turn of the surreal among the sun-loungers by the pool in the intriguingly titled, ‘Where I compare myself to the goddess Thetis, but not in a good way’, or how in ‘Quantum Sheep’, the animals are ‘grazing/ever expanding fields of dark matter’, or how ‘The Bookies’ suggests a sexual current of lubricious, transactional unease:
‘We’re taught to count all winnings slowly, licked thumbs
peeling back the 50s. Turf accountants performing
our financial striptease, all eyes in the room on you, panting.’
The juxtaposition of the quotidian and the fabular recurs throughout this impressive collection, whether in a lexically-dissolving library, an astral fun-fair, or the liminal world of a car break-down on a motorway hard-shoulder. Simon creates a familiar-exotic sort of ‘Milton Keynes of the Mind’, where people, under a ‘canopy of roof-tops,’ put out recycling from gardens without ponds, in a ritualistic way that is both unsettled, and unsettling.
There is a grace of restrained emotion in these poems, though heightened emotions break through the conventions of this suburban milieu where the work deals with the loss of a close one. ‘Bears’ is both an ode to the delightful, multifarious oddity of words, and a recognition of their limitations when dealing with loss. Words are, ‘difficult to hold – like knives and keys… Nothing will make this better. So we stick/to this week and the next… enjoy the unreasonable sun.’ ‘Unreasonable’ does the heavy-lifting here, zooming the poem out, in a single word, from an awkward, ‘difficult-to-have’ chat in a back-garden, to something heart-rending and universal.
In ‘Lady Macbeth’, a brilliant, dark sonnet riffing on one of the greatest of anti-heroines, placing her in a modern-day asylum, the Lady M. persona mocks the staff for ‘their limited ideas of madness,’ a fabulous re-invention of a character we think we know (even though never ‘real’), grounded in Shakespearean motifs of ‘a stage’, a wood that moves, and ‘players’, but lent here a modern, first-person twist. These are knowing poems, name-checking the canon at times, while adding something fresh and vital.
Alice Allen’s Daylight of Seagulls (The High Window Press) has a similarly detailed rendition of place, but one more squarely realistic – in this case, war-time occupied Jersey. This could suffer, if merely a documentary, by suggesting the cliché of an ‘Unknown War’ or ’Forgotten History’. There is inevitably, given this context, much explanation, which I found a fascinating backdrop to the poems, but may hinder the reader less interested in the period. But Allen writes out of a recognition of an unacknowledged Allied defeat, a hidden loss the British Government, for all its Churchillian grandiloquence, chose to hide in a dark corner. Allen lends this period new resonance by invoking her own families’ experience of that loss, as a Jersey-born child of islanders.
The poetic discovery of the hybrid-language spoken in Jersey in the 1940s, ‘Jerriais’, an old form of Norman French, Norse, Breton and Medieval Latin, is an irresistible gift to the poet, and in this collection, the musicality and almost-but-not-quite familiar sounds and diction are a joy. Take this, for example, with all the words for rocks, glossed for the first poem, ‘Gers Ey’, including ‘etchierviethe,’ for rock frequented by cormorants; ‘marmotchiethe’ for murmuring rocks; ‘sablionniethe’ for sandy rock, and ‘scoucherel’ for a skulking place. They are lovely in the ear and I defy the reader to be able to resist rolling them around the mouth.
Nature and our rituals in dealing with, and using, Nature have an almost Heaneyesque sense of their texture and feel and an attentiveness to the detail. In ‘La Soupe D’Andgulle’ (a specialty dish of eels), her mother is:
‘…swift to make the eel listen,
working the flesh into clean stalks,
her swollen wash day hands
turn agile and particular
in the presence of this fish
placing pieces into the pot, basting, no,
anointing the eel in its juices,
the milk-sweet fragrance of the stock,
a scattering of parsley and marigolds.’
The threat of the war is rendered through bees, for ‘They may die from gun-fire shock/as it clatters through the valley/or soldiers on creeping knees/might come at night/and steal the hives away.’ The bees, like planes, ‘pin flight paths/through the valley sleeves/of chestnut, oak and sycamore…’ (Beehive Stories)
In ‘Trench’, a prose poem in which children witness, from a window, the punishment meted out with a ‘chouque’ (a heavy wooden club) to a slave labourer digging a trench under a German soldier’s supervision, ‘The five children do not know what to do with what they see.’ Now adults, they are ‘surprised’ they still do not know. The war is both history and still present in memory, a post-traumatic fissuring in the mind.
In ‘Pouquelaye’ (a prehistoric burial site) children are comforted by their elders. ‘They held our hands/in the granite chambers,/scented with the sea./Other children were not so lucky.’ The war-time tragedies and local heroisms of the islanders are utilised to powerful effect in poems of memory, storytelling and forgetting.
The insistent ‘Is’ at the start of six of the lines of the sonnet, ‘7 West Park Avenue’ draw our attention to the act and sheer will of survival. An Anne Frank-like attic-room hiding a refugee, ‘is a hole, a cellar, a bookcase on a hinge/is the view from an attic/ – daylight of seagulls -/is salt in the wind.’ The image of the escapee only able to see seagulls, free in their flight, from their hide-out, is a wonderful image and a fitting title for this meticulously well researched, yet personal, book of poems.
Marie Naughton’s A Life, Elsewhere (Pindrop Press) also deals in memory and nostalgia, rendered in visual details. The talcum-powder in ‘A Tin of Powder’ dropping from a school-bag, ‘shaking white arcs through the air./Johnson’s. ‘The top twists open with a biting click. Upended,/seven holes print my hand with a circle of dots.’ This precision of detail typifies many of the poems. Nature is observed closely in ‘Diva’, where a silver-birch in a garden ‘holds court’…..’a lightning-bolt/upended: earthed in the flowerbed.’ The tree’s bark will ‘peel off and litter the garden. Look -/here’s a scroll under two frogs clasped together/in the pond.’
In ‘Brain’, the organ ‘Glistens in a pool of saline…Colour/of river clay, oyster mushrooms, yeast. Runnelled/as a walnut.’ There is tenderness in ‘Hearing Aids’, with the ‘hard to watch’ struggle to ‘loop the slender wire behind/his ear,’ in a father’s slow reluctance to admit infirmity. In ‘Still’, the loss of a child is registered – ‘We’ve fallen/through a gap in the language’ – against the institutional insensitivity of the 60s, when the narrator’s mother-in-law tells us still-born babies were slipped inside a stranger’s coffin. There is a versatility and range to these poems that, while always grounded, demonstrate a soaring, painterly eye for imaginative detail.
The rich nexus between science and poetry has been well-explored. Keats was originally, after all, a failed surgeon and pharmacist. Michael Symmons Roberts wrote on the genome; Ruth Padel on her forebear, Charles Darwin; Sarah Watkinson is an eminent emeritus research fellow in Plant Sciences at Oxford, with a particular interest in mycology; and David Morley is an ecologist, to name only a few poets who have sought to marry poetry and science .
Martin Zarrop’s Making Waves (V. Press) is subtitled, ‘Albert Einstein: Science & Life’, and many of the poems’ in this pamphlet have epigraphs attributed to the great man. As a retired mathematician, there can be few poets so well-equipped to tackle this somewhat arcane area of scientific enquiry. But like all good teachers, Zarrop imparts his knowledge with a lightness of touch, with an ear for the anecdote and keen sense for picking propitious moments in time. Arguments from 1905 between Max Planck and Einstein over quantum theory may seem an unlikely subject, but Zarrop renders the debate simply in ‘Quantum Leap,’ as we become familiar with, even as Albert himself resists, the idea of ‘waves of matter, lumps of light.’
In ‘An Amusing Thought’, Zarrop uses the concrete poem form to render a mushroom cloud, as, in awe of his subject as he is, he is also aware of the sciences’ terrible capacity for misuse in wartime. The font enlarges and expands as he explains at the start of the poem, ‘relativity implies/mass is energy/energy equals/mass times the speed of light squared.’ Are we, the reader, still with him on this? We need to be, as a thought can’t be ‘unthought’ and ends with the devastating realisation: ‘nineteen forty-five/matter lights up a city.’ Einstein’s responsibility is explored in ‘Dilemma,’ where the scientist is quoted: ‘I made one great mistake in my life’ and where ‘His letter to Roosevelt burns/brighter than the sun,/casts everlasting shadows/on witnesses of stone.’
The science really comes to life where the poet-narrator-teacher employs metaphoric image or storytelling to great effect, as in ‘Equivalence.’ The image is of a man in a lift with the cable severed. Is he an astronaut, floating, or is he falling, in that precise moment? ‘as reaction/follows action,/performs a slow rotation/before terrestrial matter,/without a single thought,/gets in the way.’ The verbal shift from the scientific to the colloquial finale of ‘gets in the way,’ illustrates best the poet’s ability to bridge these two worlds in a way that is fascinating, and illuminates for once, (to me, at least, as one all too decidedly ‘non-scientific’), the poetry of, and in, equations, equivalencies and scientific paradox.