Mab Jones begins 2024 – in respect of her delightful monthly poetry bulletins, that is – with recourse to an old south Walian favourite of hers, Patrick Jones. We stay domestic with Gillian Clarke before branching out with three more small-press titles for this January’s best new poetry.
Inviting The Light, Patrick Jones (available as a book and/or digital album download, price: £4-£6)
As we head from winter to spring, we also say goodbye to the darkness and hello to brighter months and days. Inviting The Light by Patrick Jones seems like a perfect read at this time, therefore. It’s a title which implies that we can, even in darkness, make a change for the better, transforming ourselves and our worlds; that, even in the midst of loss and sadness, and despite the “Guns, stabbings, tweets and hashtags” of the world, we can still find meaning, beauty, and connection. For, despite “destruction”, there is, Jones asserts, still “liberation, peace and joy” and, as per the book’s description of the poems, life itself is an amalgam of “grief loss healing awe resilience hope and transformation”.
Although the poet doesn’t shy away from the darkness, there is dualistic acceptance of it and, at the same time, of its opposite. In some of the poems, there is immersion into the moment, a kind of mindful gratitude for the everyday and our “temporary permanence” within it; in others, there are powerful images of hope, with two of the 16 poems in the book ending with the word “singing”.
Needless to say, images of light infuse the pamphlet. The overall effect of the book, however, is of something that’s within its time yet also timeless – filled with an enervating energy, even a fury, perhaps, but also possessing a contemplative consideration that’s calmer, milder, more like a priest than a protestor.
Nine of the poems are also available as a digital album, with beautiful, evocative, lushly layered musical accompaniment by James Jones and Ethan Jones; 50% of proceeds from these will go to Unicef’s Emergency Appeal for the children of Gaza. Copies of the books come individually numbered and signed, too. As someone who owns every book Jones has ever written, from the 90s to now, I can say that this one represents the best of the poet so far, in so far as all poets are on a journey of creative self-knowing and understanding of their connection to the world, and therefore always writing their ‘best’ work.
The final poem, Daystar, in my opinion best summarises things: “Arise… / Bringing warmth to others / Sowing light across the cold / Being / unafraid to glow” – although intended as a call to those reading, I can’t help but feel that these poems also glow out from the pages; they are light in and of themselves, and that’s a rare quality to find within such a slim pamphlet and, indeed, any poet. Remarkable.
The Silence, Gillian Clarke (Carcanet, price: £12.99)
From one Welsh poet to another: Gillian Clarke is surely one of our greatest living writers, and from the first page of The Silence, this latest collection shows why. The poems here are fluid and beautiful, finely written and often sonorous, again encompassing darkness but also seeking, via the pen, to transmute it. This book encompasses nature for the most part, from birds and plants to sounds and seasons, but also extends on to humans, including poems that are ‘in memoriam’ for those who have been lost, one of which, without sentimentality or any sense of the saccharine, is for / about Clarke’s own mother.
As memories, moments, and observations swim into view, silence plays a key part, perhaps as this is a book that was begun during lockdown, with the poems often expressing lack of sound – “soundless”; “unhear”; “holds its breath” – or very quiet sounds – “hushing”; “murmur”; “tree-talk”. The overall result is that you can often ‘hear’ these poems, as aural timbres shift and sway, the “breath of…prayers like sea-mist” in one moment; “a headland / hymned and hollowed” in the next, until the book’s final poem, with its “shout / of a storm”, aligned to the start of a war, leaves us with the hint of something more blasting and blaring.
Although many of the nature images in this book are very beautiful, with a resonant, near-spiritual lucidity that marks much of Clarke’s work, I can’t help being most intrigued by those poems which address difficulty and darker themes. One example of this is the poem Virus, which holds so many fantastic lines: “a primitive particle / seething in soupy pools, / its arithmetic heart / bent on multiplication”. Wow! So great. But all of the works in here are, as ever, excellent; Clarke is a master, so do seek this book out as soon as you can.
How To Be A Tarot Card (Or A Teenager), Jennifer A. McGowan (Arachne Press, price: £9.99)
Inspired by the images of the tarot, How To Be A Tarot Card (Or A Teenager) by Jennifer A. McGowan turns all those slightly scary/fascinating archetypes and iconography on their heads, seeing them in a new light and, very often, rendering them in an entirely unexpected new way. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of inventive energy to the book, a wide subject matter, and much variation in tone. My particular favourite in the collection are the more sparse and pared back poems, such as Hymn, Who Goes There?, and the magnificent Kali Ma:
I know you
for I too
have been dark blue
the mother of all
As well as hymns, poems touch upon ritual, meditation, signs, the Green Man, the Otherworld, and the witches of Salem. Spells and spellcraft are not far away, here, and there’s that same altered sense as we follow a fool’s journey: the fool in this case being “Never a woman, hardly a man”, a non-binary being who is “both sign and signified”. Both and yet neither, these playful yet often profound poems excel at containing and encapsulating opposing ideas and images, which makes for a thrilling read. The latest in several poetry books I have read which take the tarot as their theme, this one is particularly inventive and interesting, and certainly worth taking a look at no matter your familiarity with the cards.
Kinfolk, JW Summerisle (Black Sunflowers Poetry Press, price: £7)
Kinfolk is another collection which takes us into nature, the magic and mystery of it, weaving poems which are light-footed and sharp-eyed, quick-eared and with sharpened senses, as well as into man-made places such as churches, hospitals, and roads. What the poems have in common is their landscape, set in and around Leicester, and in which we find a combined sense of an “old world” – of “fallow deer”, “cathedral lights”, and “towers… / tolling” – alongside images of the modern realm. Not that a dichotomy of old as good and new as bad is set up here: the A46, in one poem, is “almost beautiful”, and in a quiet, calm church there is a gothic image of “a wedding of the / headless blessed / by a thousand leaves”, showing that either may be seen either way.
Strange, unsettling images abound, generally, and there are moments, also, in which there is distress, even despair, as in the poem there is no home and its vision of a girl with a “starvation headache”. Whether this is a figure of the past, or of the present, or both, isn’t clear, but the graphic visual nature and pared-back, skinny structure of the piece is extremely affecting.
Summerisle’s people, where they appear, often seem wounded, and there is a further image of beings who are ‘headless’ later on. Images of blood appear three times; bruises twice; bones are here on three occasions; and teeth are mentioned six times! There may be some underlying sense of the body or bodies in these poems of place, therefore; perhaps, at the very least, Summerisle possesses a desire to get under the skin of her surroundings. JW Summersile does this extremely well, and the book, overall, as you would expect of a former Foyles Young Poet Of The Year, is interesting, individual, incandescent, even.
The Process Of Poetry, Rosanna McGlone [ed.] (Fly On The Wall Press, price: £10.99)
Finally – want to be a poet, or writing poems already? Then The Process Of Poetry is a book which seeks to explore and illuminate the poet’s process, with contributions from a selection of the best contemporary writers practising the poetic craft today. Gillian Clake, reviewed above, is one contributor, as are other well-known British poets such as Don Paterson, Liz Lockhead, Pascale Petit, Caroline Bird, and Kim Moore.
Each of the sections is held by one of these poets, with several questions and their answers included about a poem and how it came about. The majority of these include earlier, draft versions of the poems, and in some cases actual images of the poem from the writer’s notebook, meaning you get to see the first draft of a poem in all its messy, much crossed-out unglory. This makes for an inspiring read because it shows that even good, sometimes even great, poems, often began as something a lot less than they were in the end. Much of a poet’s work, then, is in the editing, the reworking, the rewriting. “Writing poetry isn’t necessarily linear” (Caroline Bird), too, and whilst some poems come easy, others “take a year and numerous drafts” (Sean O’Brien).
Poetry is a fickle and multivarious mistress, but this book provides a light into her world and shows both poet and non-poet alike how the magic comes about – through effort and working at it, usually, rather than any natural ability. That makes this book a wonder, and a must-buy for anyone who loves verse or who wishes to gain insights and ideas on how to create it. Poets – you’re not alone!
words MAB JONES