"Landings" by Richard Williams – reviewed by George Monk of the Portsmouth "Star and Crescent" on 29th October 2018
Williams’ other strength is his inventive juxtaposing of personal recollections that make the reader think anew about the important themes of life. In ‘Memory is a Train that Only Stops at Certain Stations’, ‘Platforms filled with refracted light’ lead Williams to reflections on ‘The birth of each of your children’. Such intimate experiences are frequently integrated with Williams’ thoughts about wider current affairs. Posing questions about the role of technology in the world, the poem ‘Landings’ warns of the banality of the endless repetition of disturbing images streamed on our digital devices: ‘So it repeats, with a truck in Berlin/Burnt out coaches in Aleppo’.
If Williams sets much of his verse in the city, he also has an almost Romantic yearning for nature. The newest TVs can show us ancient forests and, in the urban environment, there is competition between man-made and natural phenomena because ‘streetlamps glow over moon-kissed cars’. The poem ‘Photo-shopping’ explains that these merged motifs are a result of the subjective preferences of the poet or observer: ‘We crop the world to make it fit/or make it fit the world we wish’.
The milieu of most interest to Williams is Portsmouth and its surrounds. Nostalgia of an erudite and eloquent – rather than cheap or sentimental – kind animates ‘Lighting Up the Chiminea’, in which the lost landscapes of his youth, ‘the Hampshire chalk/these rolling fields’, are ‘soft memories of gold’. The reader comes away from this poem feeling that the Hampshire cliffs have as much personal significance to Williams as their famous white Dover counterparts do to the national psyche.
There is an ironic component to the beauty conjured in ‘Spice Island Looking Back’ and other poems, as tacky, peeling piers are re-imagined as mournful artefacts of a lost age of pirates and smugglers. Long before Portsmouth’s neon lights and supermarket signs – ‘a wasteland of superstores’ – there were ‘Viking raids’ and ‘a trail of footprints/in tidal sand’. In Williams’ psychogeography, though, these modern features are as real and as valid as the ones now long gone.
Williams is at his best when he combines the old and the new, the sublime and the ridiculous, the epic and the everyday, the internal and the external, as in this description of the atmosphere when Portsmouth FC are winning a match: ‘Fratton Park rising up over a lowering crowd/football floodlight masts a four rigged man-o-war’.
In Landings, Williams has created a new poetic map of Portsmouth based on a fascinating inner life lived in a city by the sea.
Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy – Dónall Dempsey
Dempsey and Windle £7.99 (ISBN: 978-1-907435-47-8)
I defy anyone not to be moved to laughter and to tears by these poems that celebrate life, language, love and loss for the memories they bring.
The layout of the book is unusual and intriguing in its Landscape, A5 setting with poems, two to a page in Bold, inter-spersed with comments from the author. It is a pleasing book to hold as well as to read.
There are several themes – friendship, childhood, sorrow and nostalgia, but underpinning all of them is a celebration of imagination and the joy of words. Dónall Dempsey’s poems share lines from childhood hymns and nursery rhymes together with a wealth of magical language from Herbert, Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Dickens, Blake, Eliot and James Joyce. “I just soaked them up,” says Dempsey, “like the process of osmosis and there they stay to this very day.”
The poet’s own use of words is stunning. Potatoes “dance in their jackets”, The Stars Are Lonely, while later “tiny stars/ nail the night to the sky”. The blind Granny “handled each vowel/as if it were precious/held all the consonants/ as if she wouldn’t let them go” Talking with Granny. Poems in this collection delight in onomatopoeia, colloquialisms, dialect – everything to do with “Words words oh sweet words.” (So Priketh Hem Nature In Hir Corages).
There is a great deal of humour throughout as in, for example, Much Ado About Something where the boy makes Shakespearian playhouses from cereal boxes with nightlight candles as footlights. The resulting fire causes him to exit, pursued by “a clip on the ear”.
It is the poems about personal loss that I find most poignant. Beautifully written from different perspectives, the reader is touched by “the crying” that “has never stopped”, the ghosts in How Many Miles that are fetched “each night” by the poet and fed “on my pain/to keep you here again/only to have to/return you/when morning brings a new day”.
This is an outstanding, memorable collection.
Settings are evocative in this collection. Many places are named. Throughout, the backcloth is nature with its flowers, trees, animals and birds – a host of birds. Frequently the atmosphere is both magical and mysterious. Roseland is described as an ‘elemental place’ where ‘the headland fog holds fast’ and ‘Spirits and wraiths are free to roam.’ Together with the author, we feel we have returned ‘Like strangers to an ancient land’. ('Valley of the Kites').
Many beautiful poems in How the Light Gets In’ are written in the best pastoral tradition. Conversely, there is bitterness and grief at what has been lost in the name of technology and attendant materialism. The section called ‘Place’ is introduced by a quotation from Philip Larkin’s 'Going, Going' where everything special in the land may ‘linger’ but will most likely be eradicated by ‘concrete and tyres’. The new world that Patrick Osada is afraid will exist – already exists – is marginal, unwelcoming and toxic.
The final section of the collection is ‘Spiritual’. Poems here are poignant, nostalgic, concerned with mortality and sometimes fear and doubt at the thought of life stopping ‘like turning off a switch’ and there being nothing but oblivion and blackness. ('Birthday').
Overall, however, the poems in this fine collection leave me with a feeling of benediction and beauty ‘found /In birdsong, sun, sweet fragrances.’ (Lilies of the Valley). The first two stanzas of the poem 'Contact' strengthen this impression and suggest again the idea of light found in small things, light getting in through the cracks.
‘Sometimes the meaning comes in code:
Reflections on a pool; flower tints;
Sea, sky or hills as ciphers.
Or information set in tongues:
Bird call; the constant drone of bees;
Whispering grass or cold wind’s song.’
22nd August 2018
This is a book of great clarity. Its poems draw strength from the twin securities of family and place before striking out boldly to engage with themes of death and loss. Dónall Dempsey’s new collection deftly shows readers how: ‘[t]he flag of self unfurls / snaps into the lost moment.’ (‘Walking from the Rising Sun to Kildare Town’). This is especially apparent in poems like ‘Follow the Leader’ where the writer’s daughter prompts this unfurling, teaching him not simply to recognise but: ‘to be / the world that she / can see / (half invention / half discovery) …’ Many of Dempsey’s poems take up this ontological challenge, asking us to consider how our being in the world is shaped by complex interaction with close relatives and friends. In short, Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy celebrates our fundamental interconnectedness, the strength of that human chain outlasting the home place or family tree. ‘Journey of a Smile’ finds just such continuity behind each smile in an old photo album:
It pays no attention
or place or place
lay claim to it.
This perspective ensures that the elegant poems of personal recollection, found throughout the book, work cumulatively to produce a thoroughly inclusive experience for readers.
But above all else, this is a book that revels in the mysterious power of words, in the conviction that: ‘language is lava // the mind is molten / always flowing’ (‘Hithering and Tithering Waters Of..’). And so a pyroclastic flow from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake occasionally disrupts these texts, enriching their poetic soil with a thunderword ending in ‘[…] TOOHOOHOORDENENTHURNUK!’ (‘How Not To Swear When One Is Swearing’). Indeed, thunder itself is an important unifying device in this collection, a marker of self-discovery that is frequently linked to the poet’s acknowledgment of the human. Early in the collection we read:
Oh what a thing it was
I, in due course
was an about-to-be
clumping about the evening
(‘O Words are Poor Receipts for What Time Hath Stole Away’)
Later, the poem ‘In the Mythology of Foxes’ offers the same semantic pairing in counterpointing an uncle’s shooting of a fox: ‘the fearful thunder // of his gun / had ended everything’ with his nephew’s shocked response: ‘trying to comfort her / with his human tears.’ Many of the poems in Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy seek to recover this humanitas at the heart of things. It is present in the frequent intertextual allusions to Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, and Chaucer. In ‘Till Human Voices Wake Us’ even snow takes part in the search:
tears in its eyes
the snow smiles
This is a book of great humanity; in ‘Hithering and Tithering Waters Of..’ the poet reads Joyce to his daughter as a bedtime story. Her response will be shared by many readers of this fine volume:
Beside the tickling waters of.
Beside the chuckling waters of.
Beside the laughing waters of.
She loves the music of it all.
This review first appeared in SOUTH 58 magazine
Gerry Sweeney's Mammy is a study in memory; beautifully and movingly suggests the divides of our life (as the book is in sections) the "then and nows" of our reality. For Donall the death of his brother creates such a high watershed between "then and now". But each reader exploring this pages will discover their 'then and now'. They'll puzzle about what they remember or have been unable to forget.
Remarkably, despite the sadnesses and regrets, the book contains, the way Donall writes his narrative makes the reader want to remember, to cherish distant relations and acquaintances, to offer tribute to them and how those personalities helped shape the reader's own life, members of their close family or far away figures of literature. One of my favourites is "In Bed With Emily Dickinson" - this poem epitomises the boyishness and seriousness which Donall accomplishes in the book: two perspectives which are not often made into bed-fellows.
Paul Abdul Wadud Sutherland
Donall Dempsey’s collection, Gerry Sweeney’s Mammy explores his childhood in Curragh, Ireland, growing up with the love of family and friends and the lessons they have taught him on his journey to becoming a man who can "smile my 60 year old smile/perfected by now." ('NOW WE IS 60!').
Dempsey’s poetry fights to keep the child inside alive and words are his weapon, honed by reading the greats from Chaucer to Emily Dickinson. 'MAKE WORDS BREAK FROM ME HERE ALL ALONE, DO YOU!' recounts how being able to recite Gerald Manley Hopkins' poem 'The Windhover' by heart enables him to crush bullies during his first year in Secondary school.
Many of the poems are preoccupied with what time steals away, but done with energy, charm and insight. Despite facing the tragedy of losing his sister, Dempsey's poems are life-affirming with a unique expression, and are sometimes surreal provoking laughter as well as pathos. His ear is tuned to idiosyncratic expression, which works especially well in poems about his daughter Tilly when she was young. "For my little skeowsha/language is lava" ("HITHERING AND TITHERING WATERS OF..') often giving rise to neologisms such as Thundersday when "The thunder scares her/on Thursday."
Several of the poems have dedications, and people in Dempsey’s life jump off the page, their characters and expressions resurrected. Language is used in a dual strategy of preservation and defence against the toll of time, "allowing this 60 year old child/to somehow survive." (‘STICKING ONE'S HEAD OUT OF THE UNIVERSE’).
Lisa Kelly - Poet, Torriano Host and Magma Chair and Creative Writer Tutor.
There is regret of course but the sonnet makes us see that although not all our passions last, they are at the time authentic and therefore a valuable experience. Several sonnets such as Now and Here, then deal with the mellower emotion found in later life where enjoying a walk and companionable conversation is of as much value as the heady passion of youth.
Some sonnets broaden out to deal with other passions in our lives. In the poet’s view these are just as valid as romantic affairs. So, we have love for children and emotional ties with landscapes. Whilst the poet employs fine imagery throughout she also laces her work with humour which is an excellent way of avoiding sentimentality. In one poem Thinking ahead from my Hospital bed, the narrator fancifully imagines a worst-case scenario and wonders how her possessions will be divvied up amongst her family after her death. The inclusion of a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, hidden under the bed, suggests a secret passion for such shoes that are kept from her husband. Whilst the sonnet is quirky it does also have a more serious purpose. Family members are given thumb nail sketches that rather dams them as they appear variously avaricious and unreliable. In a similar way the eponymous poem Jam in Aisle 3 deals with a love hate relationship with food shopping that I am sure will resonate with most women. Here a combination of rampant materialism and chaotic parenting show a society losing its way in terms of genuine love. These are in a sense anti sonnets where love and passion are drowned out by the skewed values of modern life. The most arresting of these comes in the poem Keep it in the Family concerning the trend amongst young women to tick box their way through dating, marriage, mother hood at the expense of real passion.
Indeed, some sonnets are not afraid to deal with the darker side of emotion. This is a hinterland between love and hate. Saddleworth, focuses on the mother of a "Moors Murder" victim who never ceases to long for the child, which is the very opposite of the toxic Brady/Hindley relationship. Monday Morning presents a phone call from a young woman during a suicide attempt who has clearly fallen out of love with life itself. The poet then skilfully counterbalances this darker side of the emotional spectrum with a sonnet dealing with an elderly husband tenderly caring for his wife through dementia.
This collection refreshes the sonnet form by broadening its range of emotional engagement. It examines modern life in the prism of the form. Middle aged love is revealed as rich and rewarding. At the same time, it presents anti sonnets that flag up the hollowness of an emotional landscape in a society that races after materialism at the cost of a genuine emotional experience.
© Fiona Sinclair 2017
From the instinctive communicative energy of the passionate child who scribble(s) on each page, to the mature scrutiny of the vernacular through a kaleidoscope (that) will not alter / its ever-changing / view, Strafford's poems offer precise explorations of life in high definition. Ideas and phrases spark surprising – sometimes shocking – relays, probing the spaces around experience, their forms precisely tuned to their restless exploration.
I am, writes Strafford, perpetually waiting for a thought so passionate and alive / it has an architecture of its own. On the evidence of this mercurial collection, she rarely has to wait long. From a toad heard in the darkness, to the click of a high-heeled shoe, to the knees of grown-ups seen from beneath a card table, each image – pulsing with resonance and reflection – is palpably, viscerally alive. This is everyday language in flux, the place where words go / after they are spoken, and Strafford doesn’t let a single one escape.
Leeds Trinity University, 2017
Strafford’s ability with language is impressive. Her training in visual arts informs her lexical choices; she ‘sculpts’ (and re-sculpts) a kiss; her archetypal woman yearns for ‘a thought so passionate and alive/it has an architecture of its own.’ Limbs are ‘pretzled’. Her ‘rules gauging time/inch by inch’ recalls Joni Mitchell’s Come in from the Cold: ‘Back in 1957/we had to dance a foot apart/And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines/Holding their rulers without a heart.’ Indeed, in a similar way to her near contemporary, she captures certain periods of recent history with a light but firm touch. Strafford has a highly mature sense of how to ‘show’ not ‘tell’ which leaves spaces in her poetry for the reader to reflect and engage. She sees the sensual possibilities in the most mundane of events and objects, and this gives her writing great vigour. So in her work, men may be ‘empty overcoats’, a miscarried child a thread snapped short, and the swirls of wood grain on the gym floor remind her of female anatomy.
In her subject matter, she is fearless and frank, sharing a child’s voyeuristic view of a sometimes disturbing adult world, inviting you to collude with teenage experimentation, and portraying the perennial topics of love and loss with a fresh and quirky slant. Sometimes the world she shares is troubling and poses difficult questions, but she never lapses into cliché or sentimentality; she is witty and irreverent. She writes about her ‘sisters’ Patti McGhee, Dorette and Christina in a confiding but never saccharine way. Her man is ‘Mr Moon’, not some nimby with a sixpack, and he will see off the competition. There is sharp humour; you want to meet the woman who is waiting ‘for Red Riding Hood/to wink at the wolf.’
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