Her latest collection, Messages Written on Envelope Backs, explores an alternative to conventional “normality” with original imagery. The collection opens with a fascinating series of pen portraits of the overlooked people the poet has met. They all have a dreamy, unexpected side:
She smelt of sweat, a faint urine and lilies,
wore old clothes
with wild winged eyebrows and knotty hair.
Battered and trusted
like an old teddy bear,
she shambled through life
in her shabby jeans and T-shirt.
Crazy as heck,
with her ring-a-ding-ding ponytail
and face full of curiosity and good humour.
There are direct references to mental health experiences that expose a lack of empathy in the psychiatric ward:
I go to see my psychiatrist,
who is petite and slight
with wrinkled woollen tights
and hair down to her waist,
she looks like a little girl.
Prescribes tablets that make me fat.
she thinks I am mad.
The poem ‘Psychiatric Inmates’ also implies a ‘dark’ side: sedation. The effects of medication don’t allow for the human need to have some physical contact. Food has a symbolic significance; it is a comfort, it is ‘self-medicating’ and is meant to be savoured in bed, taking your time. This ‘wasting’ of time challenges bustling modern life, and points to an alternative vision. This is expressed in McKenzie’s precise imagery and in the slow rhythm of her short, evolving lines:
she dropped her purse
and the coins spilled out;
scattered – and rolled away
as if they didn’t matter.
And he stood there laughing, ….
The sun laughed too
and it was beautiful.
In Messages Written on Envelope Backs there is a ruthless ‘reality’ to acknowledge beneath a surreal or dreamy view “where dry stone walls/cut into land and section it” (‘View’). Nevertheless, the poet keeps on “hoping you will come and track me down” (‘Lost Love’).
First published on "Write Out Loud'. March 2019
The poems in this collection derive very directly from women’s experiences; of growing up, sex, marriage and getting older – in the 1950s and the 1970s. They are often painful: unsatisfactory one-night stands; unplanned pregnancy; domestic violence; strippers; marital infidelity, and death in old age. So when a child describes “our very own policeman” who keeps us safe (her mother says), we find him halfway through the poem following her mother “up the squeaky stairs”. At this point the child and her sister “knew it was time” to get out their crayon tin and draw “waxy pictures” of robbers in stripey T-shirts. They carry on drawing until “Mum reappeared with apple cheeks”. The crayon tin and the waxy pictures make this story persuasive, planting the event firmly in a particular period. I’m sure there was a 1953 Coronation picture on the tin and I can hear the dull rattle of wax crayons inside. No plastic wallet of felt tips.
This attention to period detail does haul some bleak experiences back to life. The woman dancing semi-naked in the pub, for men who had “more important things on their mind”, mouths “Mouldy Old Dough” as she twirls. This weirdly unforgettable song neatly authenticates the moment – though in the end this scene is all too familiar and did leave me wanting another layer to the poem.
Carefully-located memories of voices and words also trigger more amusing accounts: Auntie Vi who got so thirsty while shopping that she “couldn’t spit sixpence”; Steph (known as “Stiff”) whose Bouvier des Flandres dog was known by the children as a Bois de Boulogne, because after all it was “sideboard big” and “blocked out the sun”. I enjoyed these distinctive phrases, her parents’ castigation of “Bea” who was “black as your hat”, “fat as a cat”, who “ate husbands for breakfast”. They anchor the poems for the reader, as they must have for the poet herself.
So there is humour along the way and sometimes the surprise of trust between the sexes; when a young man takes a girl outside during a party to attempt sex against a wall, he discovers she is 15 and a virgin. So he “leads her back to the lights”, “and that, my grandmother said, her eyes black buttons/in her bright face, was how I knew your grandfather was, the one.” A teenage spirit of adventure also shines through, as in ‘Grey as the Sligo Sky’ which takes us through Ireland with “Daph and I”. The poem is typical of Broomfield’s work in its concern with the specifics; what the girls pack is “paper knickers, powdered milk, and teabags”. Of course. And in the wholesome “green and brown” of the landscape, the reader sees how “our black eye-pencil smudged/and blisters blossomed in our/desert boots.”
Naivety, fun and making-do also shine through in ‘Painterly’ where two art students agree to paint their lodgings if the landlord pays. We half see the dénouement as the poem takes us room by room through the “shriek of shades” the young women have chosen. Then the landlord arrives:
But … I thought you’d use Magnolia
he gasped, pucely.
Two art students stared at him wide-eyed,
Along with her sharp eye for detail, it is Trisha Broomfield’s economy with words and her well-chosen line breaks that lodge these glimpses into women’s lives in the reader’s mind. A good example here is ‘Safe as a Peanut in a Tree’, where two sisters are allowed to use their father’s airgun to shoot the peanut tin targets he set up for them in the laburnum. It showed me not only an unusual relationship between a father and his daughters, but through the poems’s tersely downbeat humour, gave me a taste of how the family interacted. Clutching the airgun “like Kojak”, another well-placed temporal landmark, the sisters appear, crouched by the dustbin:
letting the peanut tins have
even though the gun
only had one
and the peanut tins
were safe as houses.
If these are poems that tell it like it is, the women we meet are knowing, resilient and, from the tone of this writing, funny.
There are so many striking aspects about this close it’s hard to know where to begin. One strong feature is the detail and clarity. A hush in my step is a good example – the way the narrator’s boots ‘squeak among quiet things’ such as ‘skylarks, lizards, mice sleeping in fields’. Likewise, in A glass of water, we are given a scene where ‘Bats are flying among the roses,/a snail pops its head out of its spiral-shell/and the trees are wind-rush notes of water’. Linda Rose Parkes’ use of language, as befits an artist, is rich in sensory details; the reader can both see and hear the tide ‘dark/and close, its deep mouth sucking the harbour steps’ (Going like the clappers). One of the most moving and unusual poems is Cow at duskwhere the mooing of cattle is not only sound but also shadow and a ‘fretting for light when light is missing.’
An intriguing, recurrent image in this collection is that of the door. It is the title of the very first poem The door sings its welcome. Here it is the kind of door ‘that trickles honey/in the light/and says come in/twice at least’. The door next to it may be grey and cracked but this one is ‘a honeycomb/a promise’. Symbolic then, a ‘portal’ (Wriggling, crouching), although the way through is hard and the door tight ‘on its hinges’.
Colour and light are significant motifs in this close, representing beauty but also the downside of life when those who set out with some hope end by ‘fleeing to nowhere in a mess of blue’ while others who had ‘the light before them’ end as nothing but ghosts ‘swimming for their lives’. (A clotted blue of good intention).
As previously said, there is much to enjoy in this collection. An aspect that most appeals to me is the way Linda Rose Parkes mixes myth, fairy tale, song, rhyme and narrative. Sometimes the allusions are subtle. In A little crime that lives we are told of a mysterious ‘she’ who is ‘small-boned as Goldilocks’ and the ‘crime’ is the theft of her ‘good girl crown’ which adorned ‘her lovely tresses’. A lost shoe takes the image of ill-fitting footwear and extends it into a metaphor for spirituality, a soul that is forced to ‘limp/towards the hope of a better/when one foot is shorn/of a glass slipper.’ All dressed up in her sea-green bow is delightful to read, musical and enchanting with echoes of Elizabethan songs and The Owl and the Pussy Cat and, one of my favourites in this selection, Exuberances: an assay, is witty and innovative in its associations, rhymes, musicality and form.
Darker moods and attitudes feature in this close and there is negativity, secrecy, absence and death. The figure who runs in her nightdress through the dark is ‘thin as air’ and ‘the cold blows through’, the narrator who drifts towards her has not come to light her way home with a lamp nor strew ‘luminous petals’ on the path. Late night music overheard from a neighbouring house is the moment ‘the dead slip in’ – the same dead who yearn for the comfort of everyday things but who end with empty hands reaching out for ‘a cup of tarnished sunlight.’ (A glass of water).
This is a beautiful collection and one I’d strongly recommend. What I am left with, most of all, is an impression of salvation, a feeling of hope, a great deal of love. If you only have chance to read a few poems in this close then immerse yourself in the final half a dozen, the poignancy of them, their tenderness. SLQ
'Patrick B. Osada lives in Berkshire – and I was born and bred in Berkshire...and as many poems in his new collection How The Light Gets In (Dempsey & Windle, £9) have their roots in Berkshire, this book comes into my hands already drenched in reviewer bias. The Royal County is rightly symbolized by the Oak and Hart, and these poems are equally dignified and animate, full of the tension between stillness and movement.
These lines from Warfield Visitor hint at what I mean; describing a Red Kite…
“Till, with a flick of his forked tail / he caught the breeze to head north-west. / Like nylon kites above Larks Hill, / this bird is tethered to its home: / a pull, Like Ariadne’s thread, / will draw him back to Beacon Hill / and Cowleaze Wood in distant Bucks.”
I like the “distant Bucks” - a good handful of miles across the Thames beyond the Alfredian Burghs where the damned Mercians live...as any true Berkshire-Wessex folk will tell you. And that’s the thing, this is that rarity these days – a book of poems that, in the main, concentrate on a locality; not just its flora and fauna but also change. Here is the conclusion of Making Hay, about the 65 acre solar farm at Pingewood, Berks;
They promise they will seed a meadow here
where sheep can safely graze for thirty years,
now acres of dark windows face the sky
and on each frame a glassy panel’s ‘live’.
So, new breed farming clearly has begun
to turn a profit harvesting the sun.
This is poetry in the tradition of John Clare, responding not just to the natural environment, but also to how it is changing. Sadly, it may have a greater impact on future readers, who may reflect upon this poetry as representing a requiem for rural England. I hope that I’m wrong. It is a good read – a refreshing landscape in a gallery full of portraits…
"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
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