Jason Allen-Paisant

‘A son’s search for a father, an exploration of identity and a search for belonging’ – John Field reviews Jason Allen-Paisant’s ‘shimmering, dazzling’ Self-Portrait as Othello

Self-Portrait as Othello reads like an epic poem. It’s a son’s search for a father – for a male role model. It’s an exploration of identity and a search for belonging. It’s steeped in the Bible, the classics, in high and low culture. It fizzes with rhythm and rhyme at one moment and becomes introspective prose poetry in the next. The collection strobes with repetitions, like sunlight on water: nothing is moving, everything is moving; nothing changes, everything is changing.

The first of the book’s three sections feels like Telemachus’ Ithaca, evoking the security and stability of home and of family. The sequence begins in childhood: ‘I am five. I sit on the barbecue’ (the ‘Notes on the Text’ explain that, in Jamaica, a barbecue is a stone structure for drying coffee). However, it’s less about home than the long wait for an absent father. People fly past ‘like the whirlwind of a hurricane / but daddy was not in the wind’. Perhaps we’re in the Bible, in Kings 1:19, where Elijah, fleeing from Jezebel, takes refuge on Mount Horeb and waits for God to reveal himself. This suggests that, like Mount Horeb, the barbecue is just a place to wait and that, in the child’s mind, daddy is God. ‘Daddy’, that affectionate term, becomes loaded with pathos.

In ‘Self-Portrait as Othello I’, from the second section of the book, Allen-Paisant explores the limitations of the speaker’s language by collaging Shakespeare’s Othello. Iago, working to undermine Othello, is represented in sharp fragments as he warns Brabantio that ‘an old black ram is / tupping your white ewe’. How can Othello reply to this when, as the speaker notes, ‘The jealous white boy’s venom / was language’ [my emphasis]? Iago owns the message and the medium. Keith Hamilton Cobb’s play, American Moor (2020), offers a contemporary response to this scene, as it imagines an actor auditioning for the role of Othello. Cobb’s auditionee, like Othello, understands the requirement to self-censor – prejudice runs deeper than role and status. The auditionee breaks off to comment:

Shit, don’t I know it… in other words, ‘If I tell you mugs what’s really on my mind – sans the soft phrase of peace – y’all are gonna get your noses out of joint and say, “Oh oh! This n_____’s gettin’ all obstreperous n’shit.”’*

Othello being a valuable tool of the state counts for little. Iago’s is ‘the language / controlling the play’, Allen-Paisant’s speaker observes, understanding that ‘The very real thing / is that you should not be // too large in this space’. The page’s whiteness dominates and the distance between the lovers is stretched by a stanza break: ‘Venice aristocrat, // African soldier’.

Images and language ripple across the surface of this collection. In ‘The Picture and the Frame’, we are shown Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Rialto Bridge. In this painting from c.1494 there’s a black gondolier in the foreground, and another further back. African people have long been woven into the city’s DNA and ‘comfortably there’ too. The speaker concludes that ‘with ambiguity, I find myself stepping into a different history of representation. Ambiguity is a fucking revolution. It’s almost overwhelming.’ We revisit the scene in ‘Punted Down the Cherwell’, as the speaker finds himself ‘over the white man / in his own country’. The final stanza reverses the perspective of the Carpaccio painting as we see a white gondolier and his black passenger. ‘Look at them teeth how they white’. Are we looking at the punter? Are we seeing a smile? Let’s just enjoy the ambiguity… applied equally.

Towards the end of the collection, we meet the father in a sonnet. The son has mastered the pyrotechnic possibilities of the languages he speaks: ‘My father, I address you, as you crouch / in the dark corner.’ It’s the father who shrinks into the corner of the page. We’re back in the Bible too – in Lamentations – with the people of Israel weeping by the rivers of Babylon: ‘The Hebrews, we’re told, wept together / when they remembered Jerusalem, but how / does a multitude of orphans weep together / when each one speaks an alien tongue?’ Allen-Paisant’s speaker has gone a long way towards solving that problem by speaking in tongues, but the father remains silent.

Self-Portrait as Othello must be read and enjoyed as a whole. It’s a feast best consumed at one sitting. There’s a breathtaking simultaneity at work here and a review barely scratches the surface of its shimmering, dazzling beauty.

*Reference to Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor taken from The Great White Bard, Farah Karim-Cooper (Oneworld, 2023, pp. 113–114).

Jason Allen-Paisant’s Self-Portrait as Othello (Carcanet Press, 2023) is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2023. John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.

Joe Carrick-Varty

‘a thought // folded inside a thought folded inside // a thought folded inside my dad’s // breast pocket’. John Field considers the extraordinary power, both brutal and tender, in Joe Carrick-Varty’s More Sky

Perhaps I will never stand in the Rothko room in Washington’s National Gallery of Art, but I’ve been told that, gathered together like Moai, you feel the resonance, the dark obsessive energy of those canvases in that room. A gathering of Rothkos is greater than the sum of its parts.

More Sky is Joe Carrick-Varty’s first collection. Individually each poem packs a punch, but together they create a work of extraordinary power. It is both brutal and tender, a realist and a surrealist presentation of a disordered, inverted world.

An early poem, ‘Sambas for Christmas’, denies the reader the context required to read the title correctly. What are ‘sambas’? Is it a proper noun, or are we talking Strictly Come Dancing here? Either way, we know that these ‘sambas’ are for Christmas, so we might feel relatively secure in our presumption that we are dealing with festivities, or gift-giving. Carrick-Varty opens with levity, presenting the reader with a slice of pop culture mock heroic: ‘In a corner of some far-flung town / on some moon of some planet / at the edge of some pocketed galaxy’. Perhaps it’s just me, but I can hear the horns and heroic fifths of the theme from Star Wars. I’m waiting to meet a plucky youth who’s about to transition from zero to hero, but bathos quickly becomes pathos. Sambas, it turns out, are Puma trainers, and there’s already a troubling mismatch between the speaker’s father’s ‘box-fresh’ sneakers and his ‘faded black jeans’. We’re told that the Sambas ‘will squeak for a week or so’. The cute assonance makes this phrase pop, but there’s a suggestion that these trainers are newborns – chicks or babies – the speaker’s proxy, condemned to a life in pubs, chippies and bookies, condemned to neglect, to death.

Identity is elusive in ‘A week and not a word since the argument’. The speaker meets his father on the street, saying ‘I’m cycling near your block, / cycling for no reason, to nowhere’. Perhaps the reader visualises a child. After all, aimless cycling smacks of childhood recreation on street corners but, as the pair converse about work, we reimagine the speaker as an adult. Across the stanza break, his identity slips again: ‘I look at my watch: 11 a.m.— / I’m seven years old, waiting with a Coke outside / the frosted glass of The Seven Stars’. Inside the body of the man we see the wounded child. The trivia of daily life like the time of day reopens barely healed wounds. But Carrick-Varty’s not done yet. There’s a final coup-de-théâtre as ‘every time the door bangs— / then I’m you, in Dublin, your father / at the bar’, and we feel a wider cycle of abuse in which everyone concerned is, at one level, always a child.

The collection’s final sequence, ‘sky doc’, is a meditation on suicide. It integrates brilliantly with the other poems, as the speaker’s father’s death by suicide haunts them too. Initially, suicide exists in myth, buried deep, repressed: ‘Once upon a time when suicide was a thought // folded inside a thought folded inside // a thought folded inside my dad’s // breast pocket’. It feels safe, contained, fictional. The piece of paper’s troubling though. All of those folds squirrel suicide away. Is it peripheral, or is it treasured? Is it trivial, or fundamental?  As we saw in ‘Sambas for Christmas’, there’s a surreal, disturbing, vertiginous change of scale and tone as this breast pocket lies ‘at the edge of the reef’: placid up top but, beneath, a razor-sharp hazard. The poem ends ‘then suicide pulls up slow as a planet’. We’re playing with time again but here the scale is so enormous it’s difficult to notice. The speaker sees his family as ‘nuclear’ – as a microsopic solar system – held together by forces far stronger than its parts… but the forces shaping the universe will pull it apart with ease.

More Sky’s a challenging read, but it repays the effort. It does a beautiful job of exploring the limits of language: the speaker is full of questions – questions for his father, and questions for the bloke who sold him the shotgun, but love’s light always shines through the cracks. In ‘sky doc’ we see the speaker, excluded from school, wondering whether he’ll receive a beating. Instead, they watch King Kong together and afterwards, ‘he knelt down / zipped up my jacket in the bright sunshine’… and I’m struggling to keep my eyes dry just to write this.

More Sky’s raw, but warm. Somehow, Joe Carrick-Varty has marshalled language to articulate a howling pain – and its enduring legacy.

If you need to talk, contact the Samaritans free on 116 123.

Joe Carrick-Varty’s More Sky (Carcanet Press, 2023) is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2023. John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.

Jane Clarke

Jane Clarke’s A Change in the Air is a precise and moving exploration of family, loss, consolation and community, writes John Field

A Change in the Air, Jane Clarke’s third collection, is a quiet, stoical meditation on fragility and mortality. Humanity takes its place within the rhythms of a natural world built on acceptance, community, and renewal. The title promises the best kind of revolution: freshness and wholesomeness – and the poems which follow deliver on this.

The collection opens with a series exploring family life, and the first of these, ‘After’, presents a withdrawal from the world: ‘Now that her heart is bent over / like larkspur after a storm, // she stays in bed past milking time, / pulling the quilt // tight around her shoulders / until her collie barks her // down the stairs’. There’s a Modernist, Imagistic quality to Clarke’s couplets. Perhaps there’s a sliver of symbolism here too as, in Greek mythology, the mourning Apollo transforms the corpse of the youth Hyacinthus into larkspur. A few poems later, in ‘All she needed’, the speaker’s sitting with her granny: ’I leaned back / against her knees, my cheeks red // as the turf flames’. There’s a satisfying immediacy and a homespun honesty as we share in life’s simple pleasures: the smell of the fire, a feeling of warmth. In the kitchen, sometimes the skill is in knowing when to let the ingredients speak for themselves.

The third sequence of poems is written in response to a First World War family archive held in the Mary Evans Picture Library, London, and, even here, Clarke explores the beauty of simplicity, asking us how much is enough as she revels in the smallest dreams. ‘In the dugout’ sees infantrymen, typical blokes, dreaming big, competing like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen: ‘In the beginning their plans were bold, / one chap keen to outdo the next’ but, as the horror unfolds, their dreams appear to wither on the page as lines of poetry withdraw into themselves. Now the men dream to: ‘hold my mother’s hand, / watch my children sleep’. Earlier in the poem, ‘to’ precedes the infinitive, but even this is stripped away. However, this reduction is better understood as enrichment rather than as loss. The speaker observes their ‘wishes distilled to the final drop / like Scotch in a copper still’. Every poem deals in quality, not quantity. The reader is invited simply to savour the moment… to savour the language. In ‘Thief in April’ we encounter a red squirrel stealing from a bird feeder: ‘and he’s gone, / needle-nimble // down the trunk’. That phrase, ‘needle-nimble’ – it’s a fleeting pulse of trochaic energy, an arresting moment of miniaturised precision and beauty.

Most poems in the collection are built with couplets and, even here, there’s a sense that Clarke shows the reader how little we need. In ‘Milk’, the speaker’s milking a cow, ‘her warm teats filling my hands, / that have been so empty and cold’. A connectedness with the natural world is presented as enough to fill the void left by loss and grief. We encounter this sentiment once again in ‘Spalls’, from the collection’s final section. Spalls are small chips of stone and the speaker’s parents visit to help her in the garden. A note – not of discord exactly – but of different hopes and dreams is introduced as we’re told that ‘they’d have preferred a husband and children // but their daughter loved a woman’. The conjunction ‘but’ introduces a degree of tension. However, the final couplet offers a glorious resolution as the father spends hours alone, sizing stones and ‘By evening he’d built us a wall under the holly, held together / by gravity and friction, hearted with handfuls of spalls.’ ‘To heart’ – it’s a term used by stonemasons and means filling a void with rubble, but there’s ‘heart’ in the conventional sense here too. Yes, there’s friction, but here it’s holding the structure together.

A Change in the Air offers a generous-hearted view of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic stalks the final few poems. ‘Fences’ invites us to imagine a community torn asunder by social distancing but held together as a community of the mind, the speaker imagining ‘one of our neighbours / will be calling children for dinner’ and, by the poem’s end, love and care operates perfectly at one remove with ‘the currant bread left on a doorstep.’ In ‘At Purteen Harbour’, we’re shown a locality devastated by overfishing but the basking sharks return: ‘It’s as if we’ve been forgiven – / a school of twelve cruised into Keem Bay, // moon tails swishing, fins proud / as yawl sails above the waves.’

The whiskey still is a fitting metaphor for this collection. In Jane Clarke’s hands, clarity, purity and strength speak for themselves. Her words are weighed and used sparingly, they take your breath away.

Jane Clarke’s A Change in the Air (Bloodaxe Books, 2023) is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2023. John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.

Kit Fan

Kit Fan’s The Ink Cloud Reader is a virtuosic exploration of ambiguity, play, indelibility and truth, writes John Field

You can see when I’ve been working because my hands are, well, if they’re not covered in ink exactly, then they’re splattered randomly with the stuff. I like to choose the inks I write with. I want my heavier strokes to be shaded, and my lighter ones to be dryish scratches. My partner becomes anxious when she sees a pot of ink on the table, or on the sofa, because I’ve had accidents when filling pens before. It gets everywhere. Even when I’m cleaning up, I’m usually making a bigger mess

The Ink Cloud Reader, Kit Fan’s third collection of poetry, is prefaced with a story. Ink, always unpredictable and messy, defeats a student of calligraphy and, after every mistake, his teacher asks him to clean his brush in the pond outside. In time, he has created an ink pond, through which he sees the clouds, the wind, and the fish below the surface. Developing this idea, the collection’s front cover and section breaks are illustrated with Fan’s photographs of the marble sheeting that decorates Venice’s Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a reminder of nature’s exquisite, unpredictable patterning, and of how this apparent randomness can find a place to belong – even in the symmetry of the Renaissance.

‘Cumulonimbus’, the first poem proper, sounds the collection’s keynote. We’re working with ink again, although we’re unsure whose hands are stained. Are we reading a dramatic monologue, voiced by an Edo period printmaker, or does the speaker stand closer to Fan? Either way, the speaker tells us: ‘I fear I’ve over- / inked, or the linseed oil / soured the sky’. The poem is almost an invocation to the muses. Fan’s published two collections already, but can lightning strike a third time? The artist cannot take creativity for granted; it should never feel like a boring old gig, dusting off the same old licks and riffs. It’s a poem full of questions, of humility, and the remedy is movement, the unexpected… the miraculous: ‘What I need now, to change / the half-course of my life, / is to be struck by lightning / and survive it, like Hokusai.’

Speaking at the online launch of The Ink Cloud Reader, Fan says that, in poetry, he’s ‘much more interested in questions than in answers’ and we see this in ‘Delphi’, Fan’s poetic response to the evocative columns but otherwise scant remains of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. In European culture, the temple embodies humanity’s need to ask the big questions, something people insist on doing, despite the enigmatic answers. Fan’s poem is an example of concrete poetry – which is, in itself, pretty funny, given that there’s not a whiff of brutalism (or concrete) in the temple’s marble Doric columns. The poem’s a panoramic double-page spread, each column is topped with a resplendent ‘If’.

Fan invites us to adopt a fresh perspective on things. ‘The Art of Reading’ is written after André Kertész, a Hungarian photographer who innovated with form, geometry, and the stuff of everyday life. The result reads like a set of aphorisms – each inspired by a Kertész photograph. They are, at turns, loaded with menacing undertones: ‘Once I stole a book from the library in Paris where the eyes of oak beams stared at me like bullet holes’, and seismic shifts in perspective: ‘A cow glances over my shoulder and shuns the news in the manger’.

Given Fan’s Hong Kong heritage, perhaps the reader will focus on the section ‘Hong Kong, China’, which Fan describes as ‘a suite of love letters’. Here, Fan’s playfulness bites its thumb at the repressive Chinese state. For example, ‘Mnemosyne’ references the Greek goddess of memory. Stanzas waft across the page, perhaps another nod to ‘Cumulonimbus’. Each quatrain fades, gradating line by line from black to light grey – an act of forgetting as China’s promises about press freedom, freedom of expression, freedom to assembly and freedom of religion fade from view: ‘beneath flames and sirens / under shield and batons / which sheep from the flock / would you remove’.

The Ink Cloud Reader demands your undivided attention. Fan has high expectations of his readers, but the payoff is equally high. The collection is broad in focus, ambitious and virtuosic in its range of forms.

Kit Fan’s The Ink Cloud Reader (Carcanet Press, 2023) is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2023. John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.

Katie Farris

Personal history and the state of America brilliantly converge in Katie Farris’s Standing in the Forest of Being Alive, writes John Field

On the face of things, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive details Farris’s diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. However, other forms of illness run through it too. The January 6 attack on the Capitol could be read as another form of cancer: rogue cells, converging on America’s organ of democracy, threaten the health – the life – of the body politic. On a broader scale, the events detailed in the collection play out against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first person is a slippery perspective. As the writer stands in the shadows, masked and inscrutable, we refer to ‘the speaker’ no matter how tempted we are to conflate the construct with its creator. However, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive is subtitled ‘A Memoir in Poems’ — and as such the first person speaker cannot be sandboxed away from its author. We’re encouraged to view the ‘I’s we encounter as versions of Farris and the poems become intimate spaces, drawing power from proximity to their creator.

The memoir opens with a manifesto: ‘Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World’. Farris locates herself at the threshold of ‘a door / I cannot close I stand / within its wedge / a shield’. This liminal position re-casts the speaker as Proserpina. Her cancer diagnosis means that she doesn’t just live on Earth, she lives in the Underworld too – and belongs fully to neither. Her position in the threshold, serving as a ‘shield’, figures her as some kind of epic hero. 

The collection explores the challenges we face negotiating medical language. ‘Tell It Slant’ references Emily Dickinson’s ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant—’, in which the speaker concludes that ‘Truth must dazzle gradually’. The two stanzas of Farris’s poem explore the languages used to discuss cancer. Farris addresses the cancer: ‘You float in the MRI gloam, / several spiculated masses; / I name you “cactus,” / carcinoma be damned’. Perhaps ‘gloam’ lends the growth a poetic warmth and beauty, or perhaps Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ springs to mind, as his knight-at-arms envisions the Belle Dame’s previous victims: ‘I saw their starved lips in the gloam, / With horrid warning gapèd wide’. Either way, it’s a rich, beautiful, dreadful way to envisage an MRI. The language of oncology is too precise for the uninitiated. A spiculated mass is a ‘centrally dense lesion’ and, although ‘a classic finding of malignancy on mammography’, ‘its differential diagnosis includes benign lesions’ (Breast Imaging, eds. Christoph I. Lee, Constance D. Lehman and Lawrence W. Bassett, Oxford University Press, 2018). We’re left wondering what this means. Is it cancer? Isn’t it? Is it a threat? Will I be okay? However, if the language of oncology is the sublime – too nuanced, too couched in detail for the uninitiated – then the language of medical admin is the ridiculous, too blunt and tone deaf: ‘a stranger called and said, / You have cancer. Unfortunately. / And then hung up the phone.’ How can a patient negotiate these languages? We’re not doing very well when Dickinson looks a damn sight clearer than medical discourse.

Miraculously, the medical and the poetic begin to converge. In ‘To the Pathologist Reading My Breast, Palimpsest’, Farris credits Kimberley Point du Jour MD, whose report, in its new context, becomes a piece of found poetry: ‘Specimen B, received fresh and subsequently placed in formalin’. And, in this new context, the poet talks back: ‘Dear Doctor—you’ve done my work for me in your first line / with your tidy slanting rhyme of specimen and formalin’. As the poem progresses, Farris works with fluent confidence, riffing and rhyming with the medical report: ‘Beneath my grossly unremarkable skin ellipse / an inscription there of every kiss’ – it’s virtuosic stuff.

In ‘Five Days Before the Mastectomy, Insurrection at the Capitol’, we’re asked ‘What is the door / the bullet makes / in the body?’ and the answer can only be the ungodly mess of an exit wound. No-one can hold the door closed against a force like this. ‘America, the gun— / predictable, mechanical, /  possessed of several chambers’ feels less bicameral and more like a revolver. Farris asks, ‘Who holds you holstered / America the gun?’ We recall Trump’s remarks, made on January 6 – ‘If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore’ – and hope that future presidents can keep the gun buttoned in its holster.

On the face of it, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive is acutely personal, confessional, intimate poetry. However, this enables Farris to explore the fragility of the state and its structures. We’re reminded that we’d be better served listening to our hearts or – perish the thought – to our poets.

Katie Farris’s Standing in the Forest of Being Alive (Pavilion Poetry / Liverpool University Press, 2023) is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2023. John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.

Ishion Hutchinson

Ishion Hutchinson’s powerful School of Instructions explores the legacy of Empire, lost lives and histories, with the vividness of a dream vision, writes John Field

Ishion Hutchinson’s School of Instructions memorialises the West Indian soldiers who served in British regiments during World War I: both those who perished, and those who returned to campaign for independence from the very country they had been fighting for. It is an extraordinary work of literature. Like Blake and Milton, Hutchinson reforges language with a biblical, visionary grandeur. His words have heft and permanence. They feel chiselled in stone as a fitting, powerful act of remembrance for the people who fell in the mud and the sand of the Middle Eastern campaigns of 1916–1918, and whose names were forgotten.

The collection opens by presenting the reader with Godspeed, a young schoolboy living in rural Jamaica in the 1990s. He reads the world through his Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose ‘long-drawn leaves echo Vallombrosa’. Vallombrosa evokes Paradise Lost immediately. Satan and the fallen angels, cast from Heaven, lie scattered across the surface of Hell, ‘Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks / In Vallombrosa’. Vall (valley) ombrosa (shady) near Florence becomes, through wordplay, the valley of the shadow of death (and, in turn, a slant reference to Psalm 23). For the schoolboy, doing his best to read the world, something is missing, something is concealed in the shadows: ‘off-key volumes buried now in his head, / or somewhere else, irrecoverably lost’. The dates in his book are ‘corrosive’, suggesting, perhaps, the problems faced by people the world over when reading history through Anglocentric tomes such as Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The poem takes on the vividness of a dream vision as the men of the West Indian regiments appear to Godspeed. ‘He recalled / rain gauzed cannons with steam’ and vows to ‘Recover them’. What follows reads like an act of forensic archaeology as we see soldiers shovelling mud: ‘Mene mene tekel upharsin mud. Civil war mud. / And darkness and worms will be their dwelling place mud. / Yaws mud. Gog mud. Magog mud. God mud.’ Language slips and slides and, in the mess, one thing looks much like another. According to Daniel (of the lions’ den) a shadowy hand inscribes ‘Mene mene tekel upharsin’ (You have been weighed and found wanting) on Belshazzar’s palace wall; perhaps in this context of mud these words equate the British Empire with the decadence, and transience, of Babylon. The ‘darkness and worm’ echo Psalm 18, David’s prayer to be delivered from his enemies. In Hutchinson’s hands, biblical material crackles with energy and brings the necessary gravitas to this story of a people wandering in the desert like the Israelites.

In the next section, ‘The Anabasis of Godspeed’, (‘anabasis’ – a military advance, but also used especially by Xenophon to describe Cyrus the Younger’s advance into Asia) – campaigns separated by thousands of years merge into one another and School of Instructions speaks to all wars at all times. In this section, Hutchinson’s style changes again. Place names are referenced with biblical reverence, with the care of a chronicler. It opens: ‘Now these were the embarkations they made to the HOLY PLACES of EGYPT SINAI PALESTINE and of SYRIA in the years of the furies 1916–17 unto the last 1918’. It’s pitch perfect (embarkation taking us back to the Latin, barca, meaning small boat). The meticulous listing is an act of devotion to the dead and, in tone and technique, takes its inspiration from the Old Testament Book of Numbers, a book which works with great lists of places, dates and (surprise) numbers. Sections of the poem generally sign-off with a quantity survey, just as they do in its biblical counterpart: ‘The strength of the battalion stood at 328 officers and 5321 other ranks’. Men are simply an index to measure the strength of the battalion – the only entity which matters – and ordinary people are snubbed and dismissed as merely ‘other ranks’. Horrendous losses and sufferings disappear when reported as single numbers. The reader has to compare them to reconstruct the scale of the bloodshed. A little later, ’The strength of the battalion stood at 24 officers and 915 other ranks’.

School of Instructions resonates with a biblical authority. It reads like Blake, Milton, Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy. A collection like this does not come around often, but you know it when you see it. The fallen West Indian soldiers of the British regiments have been given a memorial as breathtaking as those made of stone on the battlefields of Western Europe and the Middle East.

Ishion Hutchinson’s School of Instructions (Faber & Faber, 2023) is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2023. John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.


Fran Lock

Fran Lock’s Hyena! is a collection with its fingers firmly around the throat of the spirit of the age, writes John Field

Hyena! is, in part at least, Lock’s tribute to her mentor and friend, the poet Roddy Lumdsen. Its final section, ‘Poems After Roddy Lumsden’, contains eleven responses to his work, so my feeling is that it would be remiss of me not to stop here for a moment. In 2017, I reviewed Lumsden’s So Glad I’m Me for the T. S. Eliot Prize Shortlist, and described the collection as ‘a sensory overload of language, equally at ease with popular and literary culture’. Lock was in the room when Lumsden launched So Glad I’m Me at the famed poetry pub, The Betsey Trotwood, in Clerkenwell, London. In her tribute to Roddy, (do read it in full here), she describes him as her ‘Poetry Paterfamilias’. You can feel this throughout Hyena! – which is not to suggest that Lock’s in any way a Lumsden knock-off. Not at all. She’s a scion bearing her own fruit. As Lock writes in that tribute, it’s ‘infectious fung[al]’ fruit, from her ‘crooked branch’.

The collection plays with ideas of therianthropy (shapeshifting, metamorphosing into animals). The epigraph, ‘This human form where I was born, I now repent’, is taken from ‘Caribou’, a track on the Pixies’ 1987 album, Come on Pilgrim. As Black Francis sings the ‘oo’ of ‘Caribou’, he howls like a wolf – and the song effects its own brand of lycanthropy. Another joyful Easter egg is the album’s cover art. Shot by Simon Larbalestier, we see the hairiest back, a visual analogue for Francis’s wolverine howl. Lock sounds this note in the opening poem, ‘Wild Talents’, where we’re given another epigraph, this one from Charles Hoy Fort (of the still extant Fortean Times fame): ‘there is no man who is without the hyena-element in his composition, and there is no hyena that is not at least rudimentarily human’. In Lock’s poem, these tensions pave the way for grief embodied in physical form: ‘on the day of your death i became a striped / hyena. hysteria’s lank technician, cursorial / man-eater, witch’s mount.’ Grieving and laughter converge and the repeated ‘hy’ identifies the hyena as female (‘hysterikos’ in Greek = belonging to the womb). Lock’s speaker is bereft. More than a stray, she’s utterly out of place (the striped hyena’s natural habitat is not the gothic gloom of the poem’s London): ‘i did not sleep, but lay, panting, on a raft /  of trash: the serial bed-wetter’s flammable / mattress, saturday magazines still in their /  cellophane. Empire, mine. my hackles in / the full flag of this failed state, flea-bit. / the day after your death, when they found me’.

Hyena! also responds to the state of the nation. The Hogarthian prose poem ‘To live on dread’ gives both barrels to the UK’s moral degradation. Lock’s speaker opens with a reboot of Macbeth’s madness: ‘my mind is a fucking scorpion orgy’ before presenting the casual face of contemporary sexual exploitation at the hands of ‘upskirting clerks in novelty ties’ before echoing the language of Trump with ‘the man who grabs at my pussy’. The terse lines of ‘”Vulnerable”’ are dedicated to Dominic Cummings and revisit the experience of a lockdown lived in flats, of those ‘whose escape / extends no further than their balcony, / long sleeves in the summer. there are no / fucking castles here. cheap masks / through which a bilious argot strains. / there’s a queue for the shops / an hour long’. ‘Black Friday’ mediates on consumer culture: ‘cold hard cash. no love / so deep and pure as brand / loyalty’. The line break at ‘no love’ works hard to show the values we’re missing, and the emptiness with which they’ve been replaced. Moving towards its conclusion, the speaker describes London as ‘this city like pestilence’. We see that our disease is far darker, the depth of the infection far deeper, than COVID-19. In ‘False object permanence’ we’re shown the face of Brexit Britain: ‘farage, forage, far-right rage, implying both barrage and farrago simultaneously’. Lock’s dexterity, and the joy with which she reconfigures language is worthy of Finnegans Wake.

Hyena! is dense, rewarding reading, but Lock knows precisely when the blank space of the white page is required. ‘Breath’ is dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement and concludes ‘this poem, that takes up more space on the page / than some people do in the whole wide world. white / space of the page. white space of a lung. could open / this pieta! into seeming air’ and ends with its final line cut short.

There’s so much more that I wanted to write about Hyena! – it’s had me poking around in the lore of DC and Marvel comics, listening to new music, and reeling at the furious, funny, generous mind that created it. This is a collection with its fingers firmly around the throat of the spirit of the age. I am sure that Lumsden would have loved it.

Fran Lock’s Hyena! (Poetry Bus Press, 2023) is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2023. John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáins The Map of the World contains poems of community and connection, and through these networks new maps can be drawn, writes John Field

Although three of the poems in the latest collection by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin are in Gaelic and others have an Irish frame of reference, the title — The Map of the World — points to a global outlook. Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems rove across history, literature, migration, faith and philosophy. They come from a time and a place, but Ní Chuilleanáin’s gentle, non-judgemental voice gives her work room to breathe and this, in turn, gives it extra heft. This is a beautiful collection, suffused with humanity and generosity.

Ní Chuilleanáin’s opening poem, ‘The Miracles’, was commissioned for the Strokestown International Poetry Festival, 2021. Strokestown houses Ireland’s National Famine Museum and, yes, the poem speaks to this. But the indefinite article in the first line, ‘Coming out of a country’ (which – any country?), invites us to see a bigger picture ‘where emptied houses / lay open to the weather, sheep in the entry, / weedy graveyards’. ‘[G]raveyards’ is an ominous plural and invites us to imagine improvised burials. This is a universal trauma and dramatises the plight of history’s refugees. Ní Chuilleanáin’s speaker functions as a witness, all too aware of the incredibility of her observations as she persuades the reader to accept them: ‘I could not have made it up: / how, in the tall church beside the wide calm river, / a short walk from the city walls, the poor / whose luck once seemed to have definitely run out / had made, from wooden spars and their own old clothes, / the image of deliverance’. ‘[C]ity walls’ carries the focus beyond any specific locality and history, and ‘spars’ is rich in signification: a pole, a crossbar and, to my mind when reading it, a nautical term for masts, yards, booms and gaffs. In 2023, it conjures Mediterranean migrants washed-up amongst the flotsam on the shores of Lesbos.

In ‘St Brigid’s Well’ we’re at the crossroads of pagan and Christian Ireland, and are reminded that, in an age in which maps are ubiquitous, a place’s significance to a community is not necessarily mappable. We read that ‘When I asked the way to the well people knew what I meant, / and at last I found the place.’ Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems are poems of community and connection, and through these networks new maps can be drawn. Wells and culverted streams direct an ‘excess of water’. As the poem concludes, we see that people have an excess of stories. Like the sacred wells, they possess a healing power. Each story demands respect and, as Ní Chuilleanáin’s speaker points out when telling one woman’s story, ‘I wrote her words down that same evening, to be sure / I had the truth.’ There are thousands of holy wells scattered across the British Isles and perhaps we’re reassured by them. They show us that everything changes: the ‘rosary beads’ show the pagan ceding to the Christian but, at the same time, they remind us that nothing changes: the well remains embedded within its community: ‘people passed with their shopping, heading home’.

The collection maintains a glorious ambivalence towards change. ‘In Ostia, August 2020’ we revisit the world immediately after the first COVID-19 lockdowns: ‘My first night in Italy since the whole world changed— / and what has changed?’  The question bounces back on the seemingly incontrovertible impact of COVID-19, reframing it within a broader, perhaps cosmological context: ‘As before, / a cat appears exactly as the sun goes down’. We can take comfort from being reminded that surprisingly little has changed, and the planet dances to its own rhythms. However, the poem’s final image of a robotic pool cleaner might be read as a comment on our dumb, blind inability to learn from experience as it ‘bangs its nose off the tiles, recoils and begins again’.

It’s worth mentioning the Gaelic poems. ‘Loquitur Caliban’ (‘Caliban Speaks’), is a verse translation of The Tempest, Act 3, Scene 2: ‘Ná bíodh faitíos oraibh. Tá an t-oileán plódaithe / le fuaimeanna’ (‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises’). Familiarity with the source text unlocks the translation and speaks against cultural hegemony. It’s never felt more important to assert people’s right to speak Ukrainian, not Russian; Uyghur, not Mandarin; Gaelic, not English. Yet, at no point does The Map of the World ever feel hectoring. A later poem, ‘What Happened Next?’ starts in medias res, with a trademark conversational, intimate tone: ‘So, will we ever be told what happened afterwards / to the man who had fallen among thieves / as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho’. The stories we choose to tell, the stories we choose to hear, usually focus on misfortune… but the light ‘also falls when there’s nobody there to see it’.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Map of the World (Gallery Press, 2023) is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2023. John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.

Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds ‘celebrates the human’, bringing her ‘unflinching gaze’ and ‘painterly clarity’ to bear on both the personal and political in Balladz, writes John Field

That ‘z’ lends Olds’s ballads a hard, street edge. Balladz deals in abuse, ageing, isolation, and death. It is framed by the experiences of living in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Memories and nightmares surface and re-surface from poem to poem, showing us how the child lives on in the adult.

Reading Olds on the human body is akin to looking at Rembrandt’s late self-portraits: hers is an unflinching gaze but, despite this, she sees the body in all its beauty, dignity and wonder. Looking closely is transformational. In ‘Quarantine Morning’, the speaker observes her shins as she crawls up the stairs: she sees ‘their indigo and red-violet fireworks, / their royal blue wormholes’. Ageing is explosive and destructive, but it is also a life drawing class. The ‘wormholes’ are both tiny – evoking microscopic parasites breaking blood vessels – and the mysteries of the universe. Perhaps we’re reminded of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, where we’re invited to ‘see a World in a Grain of Sand’. In ‘My Hand’, the speaker studies her ageing body, where she sees ‘fine / wrinkles, many making diamond shapes, / some of them long cicatrice wobbles’ – the body’s kintsugi – each repair an adornment.

At various points, the collection reads like a journal, as we stay in the speaker’s house and ride out the COVID-19 lockdown. Olds’s speaker is at pains to point out that her quarantine was easy but it is, nevertheless, disturbing. In ‘Quarantine Puzzle’ we start with a ‘broken thumb’ but the poem is structured as an endless list of physical worries and ailments, rendered with Olds’s painterly clarity: ‘Meanwhile my sprained / thumb was a lurid pacifier, and the / stain on my elderly-lady crepe / bicep opulent, the surface / like spotted dick or a clayey cream / brûlée.’ It’s tender, fragile, and speaks eloquently of the myopic hypochondria many of us faced in lockdown’s cabin fever. The poem’s rhyme offers a light-hearted counterpoint to this intensity. As it closes, the speaker asks us (asks herself), ‘What happened last evening? What had / been my liquid refreshment, had I / gone on the Chardonnay roundabout, had I / become a wine roustabout? Now my / thumb is fat as the earthenware teapot’s / cracked spout.’ The collection’s journal-style discursiveness darkens even a moment like this as in ‘339th Morning of My Easy Quarantine’ we hit the booze again: ‘My passport has been the Chardonnay label on the bottle, / its contents have been the loop-de-loop of my fun-fair ride.’ Loop-de-loop suggests a dangerous, real world, visceral thrill and that Chardonnay ‘passport’ is at once comic, tragic and worrying.

This is an iconoclastic collection. ‘Joined Ballad’ is written in response to a photograph of the comely young Karol Wojtyla who, in the fullness of time, would become Pope John Paul II. The speaker’s gaze travels through the cassock to the heart of his sex: ‘a delicate / clapper at the center of a bell’, ‘a ghostly fish’. There’s an echo of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ here, where a reflection rises to greet Plath’s speaker like a ‘terrible fish’. It’s an uncanny doubling: monstrously gothic — even more so as, in the heat of the darkness, Wojtyla’s clapper ‘stands up / in praise of God.

Violence is never far from the home and in ‘Amherst Ballad 1’ we’re channelling Emily Dickinson and a cloistered East Coast idyll: ‘New England School – Old Mansions – / Everyone a Woman – / Some Sweet – some Noble’. It’s a dream vision of the States, but nothing is sacred: ‘One Senior had slept with her Half-Brother – / And the Girl – Dearest to me – / Had been Attempted – by her Father – / Who Was my Father’. Those terse Dickinson fragments – and the silences behind the dashes – become upsettingly eloquent.

Balladz celebrates the human. Looked at closely enough, one body looks much like another. In ‘Anatomy Lesson for the Officer’, Olds’s speaker spells it out: ‘that is a human throat you are kneeling / on. That is our throat, our brother’s, / our son’s, maybe our father’s throat.’ It’s a call to love the body.

Sharon Olds’s Balladz (Cape Poetry, 2023) is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2023. John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.

Abigail Parry

Abigail Parry’s I Think We’re Alone Now delivers ‘a gloriously perverse take on intimacy’, writes John Field

The theatre company Frantic Assembly asked Abigail Parry to write about intimacy and I Think We’re Alone Now is the fruit of this request. It takes its title from Tommy James and the Shondells’ 1967 hit single of the same name. So far so good, as the song’s lyrics invite us to anticipate young lovers running from their parents and into the darkness where, under its cover, they can explore their love for one another. It’s a song with a hot, racing, youthful pulse. However, the collection Parry delivers is more playful and subversive. It buzzes with its own joie de vivre and thrills on its own terms.

Parry’s tone isn’t bubblegum pop. Instead, an early poem, ‘Speculum’, dispenses with the ‘dull fuss of sloven pinks’. No surprise that a former toymaker’s attention is drawn by one of these: ‘I like the word – how pert it is. / Inquisitive. Part instrument, part / clockwork bird’ (hear how the repeated ‘part’ chimes with the cheeky ‘pert’, making it pop). We’re uncertain how to proceed with ‘instrument’ – are we dealing with a Stradavarius or an iron maiden? Perhaps it’s both. Either way, this is a gloriously perverse take on intimacy. The speaker continues: ‘In the Vulgate, it’s a mirror: / videmus nunc per speculum.’ The ‘Vulgate’ is St. Jerome’s Bible of the common tongue (Latin being Europe’s lingua franca in the Middle Ages), and already we’re thinking of tongues – and of whatever else we might playfully associate with ‘Vulgate’. ‘Videmus nunc per speculum’ is a quotation from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – ‘Now we see things through a mirror, by enigmas, but one day we will see them face to face’ – and Parry’s speaker is looking for something more numinous than ‘an absence’.

Using a genre of Italian slasher movies, ‘Giallo’ develops the ideas explored in ‘Speculum’. It’s an audacious leap as the craning necks and tilting mirrors of ‘Speculum’ become the stylised camera angles of arty Italian sexploitation, this time working with implied violence where, ‘Between the cleaver coming down / and the merry spatter – another image darkens on the retina’. It’s also a cheeky riff on T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ – ‘between the motion / and the act / falls the shadow’. Like Spielberg’s shark, ‘you were rattled, weren’t you, by that mirror – / by what you saw just now, or thought you saw’. Absence, although not exactly a presence, possesses a monstrous power to affect.

The penultimate section of the book, a long poem in parts called ‘The Squint’, engages ostensibly with church architecture, but again we’re exploring the act of seeing – presence and absence. The epigraph for the first poem in this sequence, taken from Notes and Queries reads: ‘In the chancel is a narrow, low window, called to this day, ‘the Lepers’ window’, through which it is concluded, the lepers who knelt outside the building witnessed the elevation of the host at the altar’. The editing of this collection is another strength as, read against ‘Speculum’, ‘The Squint’ is reframed as an ecclesiastical burlesque… a peep show: ‘What’s it like?   A little like a cut, / although it is a cut. Ditto apertures of different kinds / (eyelet, coin-slot, arrow slit). / Too trim to be an inkblot.’ ‘Coin-slot’ is a slang word for vagina and, as the poem interacts with ‘Speculum’, the lepers become who? Gynaecologists? Diseased and untouchable, praying for a glimpse of the presence of Christ, hidden inside.

I Think We’re Alone Now is a tour de force. Parry’s poems burst off the page, playing with marginalia, footnotes, references to a broad range of culture. It’s joyful and, when it needs to, it displays a mastery of formal structures. Parry’s at the top of her game.

Abigail Parry’s I Think We’re Alone Now (Bloodaxe, 2023) is shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2023. John Field blogs at Poor Rude Lines.