John Barnie, Sherpas; Kathy Miles, Inside the Animal House; Dawn Morgan, Blood and Other Elements | Rack Press: £5.00

It is the human body which houses the animal for this group of pamphlets from Nicholas Murray’s Rack Press; the animal body in all its states from energised to declining. John Barnie’s Sherpas contains short, pithily elegant lyrics that explore the body in a number of states of decay. The collection starts with ‘The Last Hard Man’ which describes its eponymous hero as, ‘Navy hard,/drink hard’ able to scare ‘a kid [who] pulled a knife’ into running away ‘custard yellow’. At a funeral later, the narrator remembers the Hard Man’s brother, ‘Brian No-legs’. If this all sounds a bit like Monty Python’s Black Knight, then it is probably meant to, were it not for the way in which Barnie makes the black humour resonate out into the wider lives around. Barnie is very deft with the occasional ‘you’, to reach out to the reader, to force them to realise their own place in this decaying world. And alongside that is his anchoring these experiences in his own world, as in the next poem in the collection, ‘I could not’. This poem poignantly memorialises, in every sense, that moment when the dead in your address book outnumber the living, ‘write them a letter then’ the voice said / ‘phone them up’ / telephones ringing in dark halls / letters scattered on the poste restante of the floors.’

If Barnie’s skill is to walk the tightrope between acceptance and empathy, Kathy Miles’ is to distil a kind of Angela Carter out of Ted Hughes. The poems in Kathy Miles’ Inside the Animal House voice the thoughts of a praying mantis as she eats her ‘husband’, and the thoughts of the ‘Sow of Falaise’ given a full trial and then executed in France in 1386 for ‘the murder and partial devouring of a young child.’ Alongside these anthropomorphisms are also some piercing poems about the presence of the animal in the domestic, including the wonderful ‘Lupine’, which begins, ‘The wolf in my mother’s heart / stalks across the mantlepiece, / flipping Dresden down in a shatter / of porcelain.’ The poem ends, ‘When she kisses me / goodnight, I feel my cells changing, / my skin bristle with prickles as I turn / from the silver bullet of her tears.’ These quotations give, I hope, some sense of Miles ability as a phrase-maker. That the poems work so well and have such an emotional punch is down to Miles sheer technical ability. There is a considerable organisational flair to these texts; they have an organic inevitability which is very hard to work up, the poems lasting just as long as they need to, with a rounded, complete feel to them. The forms range from a poignant sonnet on the life of Majorie Ozanne, who founded, on Guernsey, the world’s first bird hospital; but also wrote stories in and thus preserved Guernsey-French, Guernesiais. There is also an excellent ‘open form’ poem, ‘Sting’ about wasps. In addition, as noted, the poems are full of striking phrase-making born out of Miles’ searching empathies.

Dawn Morgan’s empathies search out the viscera in a range of often historical narratives. So, like Kathy Miles, there is a real imaginative thrust in Morgan’s poems. Her pamphlet, Blood and Other Elements starts with ‘The Diagnosis’, narrated by a medieval physician troubled by the illness and death a woman in the time of the plague. However, the plague is, clearly, the easy bit, ‘…this woman failed like a walnut in its shell, / brown and round to her husband’s eye, withering within. / And I am troubled by her secretive erosion.’ Not only does the conceit of the withered walnut work so well here, but there is, again, the lovely phrase-making of ‘her secretive erosion’ with its sense of an implacable process. Later in the poem, the husband offers the nicely wrought diagnosis that his wife ‘suffered / from an inward grief of mind,’ although the physician ‘cannot mark her death down as thought. / It pains me that her torment has no name.’ And, finally, he admits defeat, ‘Was she hot or cold, bright or blind, mad / or fixed of mind? I do not know. I must simply write: she drowned.’ Morgan’s cascade of monosyllables not only emphasises the physician’s bewilderment, but also underlines the poignancy of the woman’s death. Women and their plight through history is central to the ‘subject matter’ of these poems. Thus, as with Kathy Miles, the domestic situation of these women is often carefully evoked in the texts. Morgan has a very precise eye and the poems are filled with observed detail, such as this from ‘Hydrogen and Other Atoms’, in which mourning is evoked with deft, moving precision, ‘I didn’t clean for months / and he piled up: stardust and keratin. / I watched him fur the creases in the chairs, / bung up eye-holes, feed moulds that grew / new descendants from his cells.’

Rack Press’s lovely grey livery, printed on good paper, gives the poets an excellent home in three very satisfying pamphlets.

by Ian Pople

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