Mab Jones gets the poetic wagon on the road for 2023 with five new poetry titles for January – including a healthy crop of content from the highways, byways, and streets of south Wales by Kathryn Bevis, Philip Gross, and more. Links to buy direct from the publishers in each case!
Flamingo, Kathryn Bevis (Seren, price: £6)
Seren has a track record of publishing poetry pamphlets, usually winners of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet competition. I’ve read all the winning pamphlets over the years and been equally impressed by each. Whilst not a Mslexia winner, Flamingo by Kathryn Bevis is another pamphlet from Seren to add to that brilliant list.
Accessible, engaging, and intelligent, with rich seams of heart and humour, there are shades of poets Kim Moore and Bryony Littlefair in Flamingo – unsurprising, perhaps, since all were chosen for publication by the same press. A triptych of work by these three would work so well (get some funding, all! Do a show/tour/thing…) – Bevis, though, is of course her own original voice, proved by book and win alike. And, indeed, she is amazingly imaginative, with a pen that’s fine yet full of flair, resulting in poems that are lively, clever, compelling, and often quite surprising.
Favourites for me were Matryoshka, in the voice of some Russian dolls: “We’re all in the family way. Full of ourselves. / In the pudding club, my dear”; and Teddy: “Delia suspected that her teddy bear was gaslighting her”. However, it’s not all ‘toy stories’ here, and these playthings are analogies in any case – there are plenty of serious topics and themes throughout the book, from nature, nurture, illness and death, onto other difficult subjects, such as the reasons why “a trainee teacher is crying in the loo”. Bevis is a fearless writer, tackling some big, spiky subjects, yet writing with wit, skill, and ease. That makes this book, rather like a flamingo, a beautiful and unusual thing to take in. I enjoyed it immensely.
Kathryn Bevis and Sammy Weaver are the guest poets for the Seren Virtual First Thursday on Thurs 2 Feb, taking place via Zoom. Info: here
Still Life With Octopus, Tania Hershman (Nine Arches, price: £9.99)
From flamingoes to another wild, strange animal, the octopus. In the case of Still Life With Octopus, the octopus acts as an analogy, a complex comparison, in particular for aspects of the self; the shadow self, perhaps, with Tania Hershman addressing ‘her’ octopus in a series of prose poems that interweave throughout the collection: “You could become any shape you want, I said. She said nothing.”
Other poems in Still Life With Octopus are similarly self-conversant, and self-reflective, and speak of Hershman’s interest in the ‘who’ and ‘how’ and ‘what’ of the I, and in particular the uncertainty of the self, whether that’s the mind or the body. And so, in one poem, an ankle vanishes; in another, the poet admits:
I’m in charge
but myself. She
is not always
Many of the poems take abstract concepts as their subject – time; thought; goodness; wrongness – showcasing the poet’s interest in the metaphysical and the philosophical. Still, there’s a tonguing wit, here and there, a playful cheekiness, which flashes out in some pieces – “I am Catherine the Great / and I seize this jetty, this / is my section of the lake”. Whilst there’s depth of enquiry, there’s also fun, thanks to a sparkling bright mind at the helm, and that is what makes this collection such a joy to read.
Visions Of Llandaff, John Freeman & Chris Humphrey (The Lonely Crowd, price: £9)
Poems by Freeman and photos by Humphrey are brought together beautifully in Visions Of Llandaff, published by The Lonely Crowd, who you may know through their magazine of the same name. The poems detail walks in the Llandaff area of Cardiff, famous for its cathedral, which also features in Freeman’s journey. The lovely, evocative photographs show the same, with recognisable images of the weir and the cathedral building alongside details of natural elements such as flowers and grass, and manmade features like gates and gravestones – images of birth and death – as the poems, in their own unpretentious, lyrical, snapshot-style way, touch on the same.
The form of the poems is narrative, in that they follow a path – the path the poet, too, takes – and tell the story of his meanderings. Often, they are haiku in style, showing the reader this flower or that tree or these birds, and only sometimes offering a further contemplation by the poet, allowing the beauty and marvel of these things to speak for themselves. The restorative, rejuvenating power of nature is made clear: “I’d been impatient and depressed, / but all that fell off me while I was there”.
Additionally, as well as being an excellent poet, Freeman seems like a good and friendly human being, too; someone you’d be happy to have a chat with: “I went into the cathedral and bought cards / and presents and had a laugh with the nice / grey-haired lady”. The poet’s ‘vision of Llandaff’ comes very much from a grounded place, therefore; the poems are written by a human who, like us, looks up at the cathedral roof in wonder and awe, and it’s this contemplation from where we are as readers that make Visions Of Llandaff so very engaging.
The Thirteenth Angel, Philip Gross (Bloodaxe, price: £12)
I often see Philip Gross around in Penarth – he never recognises me. I like to think that this is partly my chameleonic nature, but also I’ve come to believe that Gross just lives in his own world, or one most of us just can’t see. Reading The Thirteenth Angel, I get the impression, once again, that here’s a person who lives and breathes poetry – ‘thinking in verse’ all day long – which will probably affect how you see and act and are as you go around town. I’m thinking about getting to Boots and then the bank; he’s thinking about the nature of reality and concepts of the self.
This latest book takes in God and angels, delves into moments and movements, observes “Cloud shadows over fields” and the moon, with “pocked and harrowed cheek”. Amongst the ghosts, prayers, and considerations of the sublime, spiritual, and supernatural, humans can also be found, however, too – TVs, delivery trucks, children, all-night taxis, burgers and kebabs. The impression I get, though, is that these are further away from the realm Gross inhabits than the more airy realms of birds and angelic beings.
The poetry in The Thirteenth Angel, of course, is beautiful, breathtakingly brilliant, visionary, and profound. It is littered with moments of satori, multiple instances of now-ness: “I am here and here am I. And now, and now.” So, maybe keep that burger for later, and feast on this book for an hour or two instead. Anyone with any pretension to being a poet should definitely read this one: inspiring stuff for any reader, poet or poetry-lover alike.
The Keeper Of Aeons, Matthew M. C. Smith (The Broken Spine, price: £9.99/£10.99 with handwritten poem & bookmark)
Since he also runs the very popular Top Tweet Tuesday initiative over on Twitter, it could be said that Matthew M. C. Smith is someone immersed in contemporary poetry, and probably reading a lot more modern, of-the-moment verse than many other poets. Following on from first collection Origin: 21 Poems comes this second book, The Keeper Of Aeons, and it’s a marvelous read, with a view that takes in “blessings / and blades”, embracing the spirit and exulting in the physical’s “dance of dust”; which roves in outer space but also digs deep into caves, tombs, an abyss; which sweeps into the distant past or edges, in several more speculative poems, towards visions of the future. Stars, skies and satellites, along with skulls, rocks, and bones, are made vivid through language which straddles the sensory and the scientific, takes in history as well as the metaphysical.
The result is an impressive collection that gave me, here and there, a real shiver up the spine. If you want ghosts to whisper; rooms “where bodies feast / and skulls converse”; if you want stories of gods, or to enter a labyrinth with “a hundred floors”; if you want to be an astronaut, or join the poet on a “star field”, gazing up and wondering, then look no further than the gorgeous, vivid, very finely wrought poems in this collection.
words MAB JONES
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