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Poetry round-up: Caroline Bracken reviews three new collections

04 Sep 2022 6 minute read
Same Difference by Ben Wilkinson, Homelands by Eric Ngalle Charles and Sanctuary by Angela Graham are published by Seren Books

Caroline Bracken

I approached Ben Wilkinson’s second collection ‘Same Difference’ with some trepidation, he is a university lecturer in Creative Writing and the blurb told me that throughout the collection he ‘steps into the shoes’ of French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896).

If I’m honest, my reaction was akin to that gif of Sister Michael from Derry Girls throwing her eyes up to heaven and muttering Christ under her breath.

How wrong I was. The collection is in fact highly entertaining and some of the language would make Sister Michael blush. His ‘after Verlaine’ poems are written in a contemporary voice, for example ‘Portrait of the Artist Asleep’:

‘She looks for all the world like some deadbeat angel,
foetal but hopeful, an inch of light haloing

her temple.’

And ‘Joie de Vivre’

‘Now you suckers and saps might fall for nature
but that confidence trickster doesn’t fool me.’

There are many voices in the collection, including Jackie Kennedy, a tennis champion, a doorman, a whale, an athletics coach, a cage fighter and Facebook. What’s not to love?

There is humour in ‘We apologise’, ‘Guacamole’ and ‘Rich’ but an undercurrent of seriousness both in language and tone is what really arrests and holds the reader:

                      ‘Sometimes I think
I can’t move for my past around here;
the ghosts file through me in every park,
every bar. It’s like the mouldy novel of my life,
and I just keep turning the dog-eared pages.’ (A New City)

‘Try living in a house’ is the best poem about a relationship breakdown as I’ve ever read, it begins: Try living in a house// with rats in the walls. Try not listening/ for the scuttle past the headboard.’ The poem ends: ‘Try knowing that when they’re gone,/ they’re not. Try this as the story of us.’
Wilkinson’s poems are visually beautiful on the page and his range in form and content makes this collection a must-buy. l leave you with the final lines of the poem ‘Coach’

                ‘There are many

reasons to test the limits
of the human heart,

and this business of ours
as good as any. On your marks.’

Homelands

The debut collection ‘Homelands’ by Eric Ngalle Charles is a joy to read. It is a love letter to language. The book begins in Cameroon, his birthplace, we see a vivid picture of childhood:

‘We shall mash-up hibiscus plants,
lubricants for our car wheels,’ (Child’s Eyes)

The poems in this section are filled with Bakweri words, translated underneath, or sometimes within the poem:

‘Even before I was three months
old, I ate Matambu, food my
mother chewed before putting
in my mouth. (Kitchen)

The most ambitious poem is ‘If Heaven Is Her Father’s Land, Her Father Can Keep It’, written for the poet’s sister, punctuated throughout with the refrain ‘Let the rains come in June not August.’ This works as a prayer-like incantation holding the poem together as he charts all the things his sister wants to do. The poem is brilliantly executed because the poet is in control and never lets the poem run away from him.

In the second section of the book ‘Displacements’ the poems are a bit all over the place and I mean this in a good way. The reader is never sure from one poem to the next where they are and what is going on. This mirrors what I imagine must be the experience of a person trafficked from their home into a world where the language and surroundings make no sense.

‘I was not destined to leave my bones on
the snow-filled terrains of Vladivostok.
Memories are my hiding place, dreams
of hell and heaven intertwine, from here,
I saw the green fields of my distant home.’

The final section ‘Cymru’ speaks of Wales where he now lives:

                         ‘Wry smile, her garment clear
as light reaching a

closed eye. That is how she greeted me.’ (Cymru)

‘Today the clouds of Cymru are heavy.
In Cameroon there were no watering holes
in the summer.’ (South)

Sanctuary

Angela Graham’s poetry collection ‘Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere is an interesting concept. As well as her own poems, it includes poems she wrote collaboratively with Phil Cope, Viviana Fiorentino, Mahyar and Csilla Toldy.

Her mentor Glen Wilson also contributed a poem, ‘Border Crossing, Reynosa to Hidalgo’, a gorgeous poem with more questions than answers:

‘There is buzzing behind the bevel of the two-way mirror,
I imagine the voices of the hidden judges there’

The collaborative poems all allow the contributing poets’ voices to shine and feel very different to Graham’s own. For example Mahyar’s ‘You’ is end-rhymed:

‘When I was drinking shot after shot

When I was reading Rubaiyat

When I was reading Khayyam’s couplets

When the book got wet with my tears’ droplets’

Csilla Toldy’s ‘Sanctum Trilogy’ is written in three sections, ‘Resistance’ ‘Refuge’ and ‘Resilience’ and is more experimental in form:

‘Forget the borders, tie up your tongue
here you are safe – between the walls of this place.
Stay put for now, We will decide –
wait
    w a i t
         w  a  i  t
            w   a  i   t’

Phil Cope gives us a panoramic, bird’s-eye sequence of the Welsh landscape:

‘A brace of peregrines, monogamous
though solitary throughout the year,
rendezvous up here each April,
drawn by this cliff’s magnetism,
egged on by legacy,
reliable in the knowledge of
a ledge, secure on Darren Fawr
to raise two chicks, then leave.’

Angela Graham’s wonderful poem ‘A Heerd tha Sodjer on tha Radio’ which won the Linen Hall Ulster Scots Writing Competition is included. Her other poems work best when they steer away from prose and allow the image to be seen, as in ‘Annunciation, Visitation’

After the angel left her what was the girl to do?
I see her stand, go to the window,
look out at the utterly familiar street.
A neighbour, jovial, passes and she smiles
─ too soon for speech. She looks down
at her utterly familiar hand
resting on the white stone sill.’

And ‘Persian New Year’

‘Let me give you gorse,
the ungraspable, the unlikely
solder-drops splattered on my hedges
by the sun torching its way out of winter.’
The last word goes to Viviana Fiorentino, from ‘In This Sanctuary’
‘You blue tit, jackdaw or young doe
you, overflow, the breaker of borders
of species, you know it will not matter
that you were males or females, your voice
is
singing’

All three of the reviewed collections are published by Seren.


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