1. After Memorial, her rendering of military deaths in Homer’s Iliad, Alice Oswald’s seventh collection returns mostly to poems about the natural world.  Traditionally poems have described nature either as evidence of God’s handiwork or as a comfort or inspiration for mankind.  This tradition was refashioned by Hughes who celebrated the mindless forces of nature and is further re-presented by Oswald in what I will call neo-animist terms – nature can be seen and responded to as living in a non-scientific and also non-religious sense.  This is established in the book’s first poem, A Short Story of Falling, which describes rain’s effect on leaves and flowers, continuing:

    if only I a passerby could pass
    as clear as water through a plume of grass

    to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
    turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

    then I might know like water how to balance
    the weight of hope against the light of patience…

    This isn’t pathetic fallacy in the traditional sense – that inanimate substances can share or express human feelings – but rather that nature, if looked at aright, can reflect our deepest desires and fears.  Oswald sometimes addresses us like a prophetess or sybil:

    May I shuffle forward and tell you the two-minute life of rain
    starting right now lips open and lidless-cold all-seeing gaze…
    (Vertigo)

    or as a storyteller enacting her subject matter:

                I’m going to flicker for a moment
    and tell you the tale of a shadow
    that falls at dusk…
    (Shadow)

    or to set up a mystery:

                This is what happened
    the dead were settling in under their mud roof
    and something was shuffling overhead

                it was a badger treading on the thin partition…
    (Body)

    In every case the poem develops into a meditation on the life of nature and sometimes on death (a rotting swan, a dead badger, dying flies) with an intensity of focus and originality of language like no other poet writing today or ever.  For example, to read “I have been leaning here a long time hunched / under the bone lintel of my stare / with the whole sky / dropped and rippling through my eye” (Looking Down) is to see seeing in a new way.

    Some poems may be new departures: Fox suggests a feminist response to Hughes’s The Thought-Fox – vixen speaking to another mother rather than dog-fox inspiring self-absorbed male poet; the 15-line Slowed-Down Blackbird strikes me as a wry response to Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; and Aside, a lovely description of the four-year-old Oswald hiding in a laurel bush and becoming absorbed by its spirit, has a distant echo of Edward Thomas’s Old Man.

    The three longest poems have classical subjects:  Severed Head Floating Downriver (the dismembered Orpheus); Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River in which a tiny carved Roman water nymph is invoked to bring water to a dried-up Gloucestershire watercourse; and Tithonus, a drama to be performed in 46 minutes at midsummer dawn, set out apparently with metronome markings over some 36 unnumbered pages.  All three are likely to be very powerful when spoken aloud – Oswald recounts a woman having an asthmatic attack at the end of Dunt because she forgot to breathe.  When interviewed for Magma 26 in Summer 2003, Oswald spoke about having started to write a play about Tithonus.  It has appeared 13 years later, suggesting an extraordinary persistence with matters she feels to be important.

    Falling Awake by Alice Oswald is out now from Jonathan Cape.

  2. Jane Bonnyman’s first pamphlet, An Ember from the Fire: Poems on the Life of Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, is a gothic wonder of a book, an adventurous, swashbuckling exploration of an extraordinary life. The pamphlet opens as the heroine travels from Indianapolis to California (her daughter in tow) to meet up with her first husband who is hoping to cash in on the gold rush. It covers Fanny’s scandalous divorce, her meeting with Robert Louis Stevenson, his death, and her quiet retirement in her own small Eden. The life expounded here is startling and vivid (it is difficult for me to believe that no one has written a collection about this subject this before) and luckily the writing lives up to the challenge, sheathing those good bones in appropriate flesh.

    The first poem, ‘Dawn’ traces Fanny’s journey across America in pursuit of her treasure-hunting husband. A taut, precise poem, it perfectly encapsulates the triumph of hope (in the guise of will) over the conventional stagnation of death. It begins with a description of seemingly-inescapable desolation: Among stagnant pools where dead fish float and coconut leaves drift over rotting flesh like helpless souls, and feverish women lie curled in hammocks chattering to revenants of their lost men Across this landscape, Fanny strides armoured with her purpose. She wills her way through the land of death, like a heroine from one of her future-husband’s books: she buys liquor, hot coffee for her daughter, finds a guide, three mules and a road that leads beyond the cemetery to Panama City ‘Dawn’ is structured in two evenly-divided parts; there are nine lines for death, and nine for forced rebirth. Not a word is wasted. The effect of reading this poem is very much like inhaling the first breathless fifty pages of an adventure novel, when the story first starts to get really good.

  3. Peel & Portion

    Written by Lisa Kelly at 11:04 am

    Magma’s third National Conversation Event: Peel & Portion organised by board members John Canfield and Ella Frears opened up a fascinating discussion about the poetic process and different attitudes to drafting, editing and when a poem is considered finished.

    Poets Kathryn Marris, SJ Fowler and Rebecca Perry in conversation with Patrick Davidson Roberts revealed their individual approaches and showed examples of their poems that had gone through several drafting stages, sometimes spanning years.

  4. I’ve now been reading Transparencies, on and off, for almost two years. This is a good period of time over which to think about a collection that works across Gaelic and English as well as seeming to span at least one lifetime of experience.

    Bateman made her name as a poet in Gaelic, though not as a native speaker. This is her first largely English collection. In Transparencies, some poems (though only twelve in a collection of sixty-four) are presented bilingually with the Gaelic originals on the verso, the poet’s own translations into English on the recto. The other poems appear in their sole English form. I know not one word of Gaelic and yet the Gaelic poems surprised and delighted me each time I encountered them. I was enchanted by looking at this strange rich language, full of consonantal clusters. I kept trying to lay the English over the Gaelic, or vice versa – one way in which the title of the collection began to work its charm.

  5. Simon Barraclough has been, for the past year, Poet in Residence at Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Barraclough remarks that his path there began with a fortuitous reading in 2013, but also long ago as a child looking up at the dark West Yorkshire night sky. His third collection, Sunspots, reflects this deep and pervasive interest in the cosmos, but more specifically, in our very own local star, the Sun itself.

    I come to Barraclough’s collection with profound interest in how science and poetry can interact, specifically astronomical and physical science. Barraclough does an excellent job of “circling” the sun in different ways, using each poem as a way of examining some facet, or “Sunspot.” His knowledge of Sun-science comes through in his application of scientific concepts and language, and his poems reveal the nature of the Sun via its interaction with us and with the broader universe. This is a cosmic long view of a book.

  6. Chris McCabe, Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, £9.99) Andre Bagoo, Burn (Shearsman Books, £8.95) Dorothy Lehane, Ephemeris (Nine Arches Press, £8.99)

    Chris McCabe’s collection Speculatrix juggles language like he’s juggling knives, mixing contemporary urban scenes with Elizabethan and Jacobean references – sparks flying from the clashes and contrasts.

  7. Voicing an Opinion on Voice

    Written by Lisa Kelly at 11:41 am

    A poet’s voice is a much discussed aspect of a poet’s work, but just how relevant or limiting it is being recognised by your voice provoked an interesting discussion by a panel of well-known poets taking part in Magma’s National Conversation about Poetry.

    Last month Hannah Lowe, Joelle Taylor, Chris McCabe and Jon Stone participated in Magma’s Incorrigibly Plural live event in Clerkenwell, London where they performed their collaborative poems which you can read on the Magma blog.

  8. Poets Hannah Lowe, Joelle Taylor, Chris McCabe and Jon Stone read their collaborative poems at The Crypt in Clerkenwell earlier this month as part of Magma’s ongoing National Conversation about Poetry.

    The audience listened attentively to the new work, which responded to the theme of the four seasons, and was treated to readings by the individual poets so it was possible to hear and compare their ‘pure’ voices.

  9. Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons doesn’t have a jacket that would make me buy the book. It quotes Bernard O’Donoghue: “These are poems of the utmost importance,” while artist Paula Rego’s cover image of St Christina with a swaddled baby on her back is admittedly beautiful, but miserable. Feeling like a recalcitrant pupil having to engage with ‘heavy’ poems I probably won’t enjoy is not an ideal starting point. Flipping to the back cover, however, I am reassured by the smiling face of Etter, a widely-published American expatriate lecturing in creative writing at Bath Spa University.

    Coupling with my mixed emotions on what to expect, the collection itself deals with mixed emotions, as a birthmother meets up with the son she gave away as a teenager in a series of imagined scenarios. It includes anticipated heart-breaking moments, which never become syrupy and – surprisingly – deadpan humour.

  10. Tony Williams’ second collection, The Midlands, begins on a rather gloomy note, with the first line proclaiming, ‘The Midlands are crying’. But the detail of what provokes the despair makes it convincing, heartfelt and all the more pervasive:

    They cry in the carparks of aerodromes, deep in the cellars         of buildings that used to be bookshops. They cry over fences, at steam-engine rallies.         They cry over dogs and bags of granulated sugar.

  • Views expressed on this blog are those of the individual authors -- Magma seeks to present a range of views, not a single Magma view.
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