Zen koans, true spellcasters, new visions of reality, transmutations of the everyday and, in one case, a lot of cow talk. That’s what you get when it’s time for Mab Jones’ latest poetry column for May!
Prompts is a very different ‘lockdown poetry’ pamphlet, which takes the form of a series of writing prompts, that veer from the mundane – “Write about the rain”, “Write about armpit hair” – through to the silly – “Write about the meaning of foil”, “Explain scraps of paper” – onto the poignant – “Write about what it will be like to not be a mother”, “Write about soul mates”. Thus, the banality and bathos of life, its absurdity and many adversities are cleverly set out, in a really interesting and unique way.
Some of the prompts are almost like Zen koans (“Write about how long six months is”); others touch upon our innate empathy and depth of feeling (“Write about how long six months feels”); and yet others retract these ideas, becoming ‘negative prompts’ that play with the reader’s presumptions and offering, through their negation, an alternative narrative or other association (“Don’t write about six months”). The poet’s light touch and clever mind make the pieces in this book a joy to read, whilst simultaneously, despite simple language, touching through to very deep and profound ideas and issues. A genius concept, beautifully executed.
What I like about The Calls is how it encompasses ‘above and below’. There are lots of cosmic images here – “stellar projections”, skylights, crescent moons and “stars” – but also there are “bones” “underfoot”, images of “wet, hot earth”, kitchen floors, rock pools, and seeds that are “forced into the ground”. If poetry is magick (as it is, in my experience), then here’s a true spellcaster, who extends her reach to encompass heaven as well as earth, in poems that often, to me, seem incantatory, with a strong sense of the heft and sway of language, its rhythm and its flow.
As such, perhaps it’s no surprise that there are plenty of gothic allusions in these spell-like pieces: images of a “fairy ring”, “grassy teeth”, and a “blackbird’s beak” in the opening poem’s first stanza set the tone for the pamphlet, each of these items possessing a totemic quality which many other objects are also assigned, from “the thorn / caught in a linnet’s wing”, to “blackened cathedrals”, to a person “discarded in the street like a broken fang”. I think if all these images and analogies were collected up, they would make an amazing modern-day alternative to the three witches’ spell-poem in Macbeth. As it is, you can simply buy this book and read through them, which I would highly recommend.
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Speaking of spells, here’s another book with spell-like, transformational qualities. Emblem, the book’s forward tells us, is a “hybrid form of text and image that emerged during the early modern period”. One of the first emblemists was Andrea Alciato, with whom some of the pieces in this book are in conversation, alongside reproductions of Alciato’s now 400-year-old images.
Mercer tells us she wrote these poems in “the lonely hours of the early years of motherhood”, and so the book is infused with that same solitary sense – as well as images of parenthood and childhood, with associative imagery like lullabies, the alphabet, spinning tops and picture books. This domesticity serves to ground the poems in the now, and in the personal life of the poet, as well as spanning back into the past, giving a sense of time moving, history ‘living’, and of the ‘conversation’ that often exists between poets who are still with us with those who have already passed.
Altogether, it’s an inventive, alluring, engaging book, with a powerful sense of wonder and wondering. In this way, the mother is also the child, perhaps, peering out at the world through clear eyes. One stanza of a poem is entirely composed of questions, as if to reinforce this sense, and in the section Emblemata, where the poet responds in verse to Alciatio’s images, each one acts as a little ‘window’ into a new vision of reality. Mercer is a poet for whom the magick runs deep and true.
This udderly inventive, delightful book Cow is funny, poking its (cow) tongue out at the reader, and at society – but entwined with the humour are serious and salient points about our objectification of animals, consumption of these, and of consumer culture in general. Poems might be from the viewpoint of a cow or a human being, in the first person or in the third; despite its single subject, and the one-word title of the collection, there are multiple angles, insights, opinions, and views, making the book very lively, varied, and thus enjoyable.
Very often, these poems struck me as something nearer to art than many poems I read – although there isn’t anything overtly visual here, besides some nicely creative and inventive poem structures, the mix of sometimes glib or even flippant tone on the part of the poet, lack of fear when utilising irony and other kinds of humour (which many poets seem a little scared of), and exploratory intelligence, veering from concept to concept, gave me the same feeling that I get when attending a very good art exhibition. Recommended.
I loved Charles Bukowski as a teen, and the poems in Echoes have some of the same qualities: they are terse, immediate (set within a moment), and simple in their style as if the author is talking directly to you. This gives them a power which, despite their brevity, is sometimes startling. The ‘echo’ in these pieces is therefore partly from these shared moments, as well as from the depths beneath the domestic settings which the poet describes and inhabits, as in, for example, the poem Banana Bread, where we begin with a “village café” but end with the writer’s thoughts on “truth”. The mundane therefore becomes a means by which Parry plumbs greater meaning – which, for a poet, is a primary method of transmuting the everyday, and one of the purposes, I feel, of poetry itself.
There is prose within this collection, too, showcasing the writer’s range, which is enviable. Overall, Parry does come across as an observer, perhaps a little outside of things; but it’s the outsiders who, I feel, can often offer the greatest insight and reflection – or, echo – of society. The poems themselves are thoughtful, finely penned, and minimalist. Parry lacks Bukowski’s beeriness but retains his emotion-fuelled brilliance. A skilful, insightful collection indeed.
words MAB JONES
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