|Apr/May 2018 Reviews & Interviews|
A Feast of Fools.
Cinnamon Press. 2018. 71 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78864 008 4.
The Rialto. 2018. 68 pp.
ISBN 978 1 909632 08 0.
Terry Gifford's poems reflect his life as a traveller, a climber, and an environmentalist. You travel with him to California, Spain, Scotland, and many other places, noticing the natural wonders but also the environmental degradation. The title of his book suggests a book of foolery, and Terry begins his first poem as "the fool" who addresses "an audience of fools"—"well-travelled fools" and "well-informed fools," but fools who, like him, are confounded by "the simplicity / of the hairbell" and the song of the blackbird. Amongst poems of great joy and beauty, Terry writes, too, of the degradation we foolish humans cause.
At a cultural festival in Spain, he immerses us in the family traditions—"the long years of hands and feet crafting cooking / and dances and music and designs and techniques for / growing well with garlic and oil and an unspoken love." Here are the musicians "not at all nervous, tuning and toasting a dram to Aurora." Here is the doctor "smoking, bold with fiery hair," and the priest "whose interests are food and fun and people." And here, too, is "the poet," pulled into this joyous celebration, as is the reader. But at Lawson's Fork Creek in South Carolina, he sees not only "the pawprint of a passing coyote" but also the detritus caught in the once crystal-clear waters—the basketballs in a logjam which "bob thick as frogspawn," and he hears the "chainsaw sound" of a "neighbouring / kid's quad-bike phase" from across the river.
The changes to life and country surface in other poems, too. In the Tuscan town of Segobriga, traces of an ancient Greek and Roman life (the theatre in which "a whisper on the platform… / still carries to the gods") exist alongside the harsh present-day realities of wind turbines "slowly saying Y? Y? Y?," "a grid of solar panels," and a motorway winding down through fuel crops of "sad sunflowers" into modern Madrid. And in seven sharp lines, the notorious, polluting run-off from the Hinkley G Gas and Electricity Station in California becomes sun-drenched "rippled sand" and "old energy," but the poem ends with an abrupt, damning phrase which comes like a punch to the stomach.
Nature, in other poems, is rich, detailed, and seen as closely as only one who can immerse themselves in it can see it. "The deer in the mist" may be almost a cliché, but at a "Wordsworth Winter School, it "can make a poem." More interesting are the snowdrops "a bank of stars / somehow thrusting through / spoil"; "the wild hill, blown brown / wind-trammelled and wet"; and, month-by-month, the birds which mark the changing seasons.
There is humor, too. A wandering donkey is captured and tied to a tree, but it turns out to belong to a local man "leatherjacket, scarred brown face, wild hair," who was following it along the valley. "What Valencian curses carried on the wind / that night?" wonders the poet, "And in the talk at the next market,/ how many donkeys were in this story?" The poem "Slug," too, might seem like a joke, but is in fact a deft and witty recreation of D.H Lawrence's "Snake." In the rhythms of Lawrence's poem, a slug comes to the poet's wine cup "on a dark wet evening," but the poet is not "in pyjamas for the heat," as was Lawrence in Taormina, but in "shorts for the summer / and a fleece." This slug, like Lawrence's snake, leaves the poet feeling he has "missed his chance" with "one of the lords of life."
Terry is an amiable and alert travel companion, and he tells his stories in simple, easy-flowing lines.
Matt Howard's poems are very different but equally good. Matt works in nature conservation. He, too, is a close observer of plants and animals, but he looks closely, too, at the human animal and the ways in which we fit into the natural world. He also has a wonderfully wry sense of humor. "You know this just might work," thinks the wasp, "arse-end backing up to an oak bud / to lay its egg"; and "I must get this down," says the scribe who has invented the recipe for ink from the resulting oak-gall. The bureaucratic speech of the "Wasp in a Bowler Hat," perfectly parodies a human managerial pep-talk, given to workers who are his fellow-drones in the wasp nest. He even gives them a motivating slogan to spur them on: "Buzz with risk."
This first published collection of Matt's work shows a more thoughtful, serious side, too. The opening poem, "A Jar of Moles," describes a curious love-gift which could be a metaphor for this book of poems. An empty vessel created by one man (a blown-glass jar or a book) contains a collection of specimens carefully arranged by another man. The wild faces of the moles, the bared teeth of one of them, and "each earth-swimming hand," all are there in different ways in this collection of poems. They are there in the beautifully articulated exo-skeleton of a crayfish; in the child who "cried with grief's voice" and was buried "with eyes beautifully open" in the poem inspired by Miguel Hernandez; and in the sequence of poems about the hard work of nature conservation in the dykes and acres of the Norfolk land. There, hand-clearing the dead undergrowth ("brashing"), you hear the "suck and plop of sedge-roots tearing from bog" as you wield a heavy scythe; and to deal with an "old dog-rose / all scrambled up and through the sallows / at the choked dyke," you must "bring your roughest gloves and drink" and suffer the "sunburn, each ache, scratch and sting."
There are human specimens here, too. "Making Evelyn's Tables' moves from a dead criminal to the felling of an evergreen pine for boards to make the tables to the blood-vessels and nerves dissected and preserved so that we can "behold a man / for ourselves; trace the inner workings"—everything "stripped into lines of his feelings," all humanity gone. Similarly, in "Acquired deformities: Constriction of Female Thorax: presented by Sir Erasmus Wilson 1884," the poet observes "the curvature in the spine," the "concertina of bones" and "wicker ribs" which remind him of an empty basket, and he wishes he "could hold you now, ease this organ box / free each reed, feel you breathe."
Matt also tells some wonderful stories—of wolf-children; of a man creating a book of Adders in revenge for the snake-bite death of his twin brother and mother; of an asthmatic boy, "Half-Lung," who kills an albatross on an early sailing ship; and a dark, witchy sequence of poems, "The House of Owls," in which an owl-woman who comes "with a heavy scent of hawthorn" and "owl-white skin," takes a human mate and leaves a legacy of owl spirits, which over the years haunt the titular house.
There are poems inspired by history and war, poems about collectors and collections, and poems about nature. Altogether this is a fine debut collection in a distinctive voice.
My only complaint about these books of poetry has nothing to do with the quality of the writing. It is that I frequently wanted to know more about the background to the poems. I did not want an explanation per se, but, perhaps, a map to show me where these places are; an historical note to tell me a little about, for example, James Allen's historical cross-breeding of snowdrop and about the significance of Mari Chaves' door with its magical carvings. For one of Terry's poems, "The Wearing of Motley: The Cioch Nose of Sgurr a′ Chaorachain," his prose version at terrygifford.co.uk allowed me to understand some of the climbing terms in the poem and explained more clearly why the climbers felt they were wearing a fool's motley.
Similarly, in Matt's book, "Dr Evelyn's Tables" assumes the reader knows a little bit of science history. And it helps to know that "Gorilla Gorilla" refers to the much loved zoo gorilla, Guy, whose taxidermy body is now on display at the Natural History Museum in London. There are dialect words, too, in "Backwater Carr" sequence which would benefit from a translation; and a note about the ruined baptistery at Madron, where "clouties" (scraps of cloth) are still tied to branches above the "holy" well as charms, would have been fascinating.
There is resistance from editors and poets to adding informative notes because, or so it is widely held, good poems should "work by themselves" without any need for an "explanation." Meanwhile, poetry is not widely read, and many people are intimidated by pages on which words are laid out in strange patterns according to unfamiliar, arcane conventions, and where (as they have probably been told at school) what is written cannot always be taken at face value. I am not suggesting a poem be explained, only that given some brief pieces of information, the poems can not only become clearer and more interesting but also acquire more depth. Perhaps a change of format, too, would make the pages of poetry look less forbidding and attract more readers.