Front cover artwork: ‘Dragonflies First Flight’ by Amanda Dagg
back cover, detail from image: www.dagg.co.uk
My thanks to editor Carole Baldock and her team for including my short piece on the Victorian poet Eugene Lee Hamilton in Orbis no. 183. As always, the magazine makes good reading – poems, stories, reviews and critical content – and, as always, I mention only a very few of the poems that stood out for me among the many others really good.
I particularly liked Martin Zarrop’s Sleepers where humour underpins the poem’s sense of sad futility and die-hard loyalty. He deals in a sensitive way with people who persist in pre-perestroika communist idealism. “Now in their nineties, they are still expecting instructions, / encoded in clues for The Sunday Times, cryptic crossword / or buried in the personal columns of The Washington Post. / Is there an anagram of ‘Felixstowe Workers, Unite and Fight!?’ ” Humour suffuses the piece with affection. One is left feeling that, wrong-headed as they are, these aging ‘comrades’ are in some way admirable because there is always something admirable about loyalty, even misguided loyalty.
I also liked Tony Hendry’s poem on Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Why wouldn’t I since I do a lot of poems from paintings myself? However, I like this one because, unlike some poorly-executed ekphrastic poems, it does not collapse into mere description but engages the reader in an interrogation of aspects of the painting which might usually escape notice, overwhelmed as they are by the main event. Describing the action from the point of view of the ‘cute boy satyr’ was a good idea for getting into the painting, rather than just being outside looking in. It’s a poem in the best tradition of Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts.
Nicky Winder’s Death of the Bird Keeper is a poem to reckon with because it’s a poem about The Final Reckoning. He (she?) does a great job in summing up the Bird Keeper’s daily round, now rounding out to its finish. I’m at the time of life when I appreciate poems like this. I am Nicky’s Bee-Keeper, and I know how ‘His margins are shifting’. His other poem, Stealth, is equally good and, further on in the magazine, Lorna Sherry has a really perceptive poem on a somewhat similar theme, as the title (‘Age’) indicates. Okay, okay … but I did say I’m at that time of life …
Featured poet Judith Shaw’s genuine middle eastern sculpture is my pick of the best from her four really outstanding pieces. Allowing the central image to speak directly to the reader is very effective (as was Tony Hendry’s use of the boy-satyr) and nothing is lost of the fleeing refugee’s predicament. He has to part with this precious possession for badly needed cash. It is a sad parting: ‘ … he’ll never sleep again’. The poem puts me in mind of the lost (stolen) treasures from Iraq’s museums during that illegal war.
Nigel Ford’s ‘After they had felled the trees’ is a particularly short poem. I like short poems. I tend to think that those which go on for rather a long time are not really poems at all but short short stories Certainly they often get prosy, despite any poetic trappings of rhyme and meter. Then there is the challenge of how to write about something that isn’t there and without becoming too regretful or, worse, maudlin. Enter Nigel. I admire the economy of how the trees have left ‘… long and stately shadows / old as time, / no longer there.’ (Thomas Hardy’s great poem on absence, Afterwards, came into my mind on reading this. What more praise can I give?) Similarly, the economy of Yvonne Adami’s ‘Walking the Merri…’ was impressive. She lets nothing come between the reader and the physicality of the early morning walk. One really is there: ‘footsteps / echoing / a trail of days / raked over / altars / of stone / casting shadows …’
I can’t end my quick survey without a mention of Hannah Stone’s ‘Gathering/Scattering’. What an arresting first line (‘I carry Dad up the mountain in an Illy coffee canister.’). Well, it’s not really a first line because this is, I think, maybe, a ‘prose poem’, that curious hybrid which I usually abhor. But I’ve come back several times to read this piece because I appreciate both its irreverence and its realism. Yes, this is the way these things happen. And I’m so glad that Mum was happy at the end. It’s all really well done.
Of the stories, I liked best Jim Meirose’s The Burning Bush, at least I think it’s a story. As I mentioned above, there’s such great play these days of ‘allowing genres to flow into each other’ that maybe it’s flash fiction? Or maybe even a ‘prose poem’? Whatever it is, it’s good. Again, irreverence always grabs me. And such a riot of imagery.
And I must send special congratulations to my Dublin poet-colleague Jean O’Brien on her gaining Joint First in the Readers’ Award in Orbis 182.
My own contribution is in the ‘Past Masters’ section and concerns Eugene Lee Hamilton, that forgotten Victorian master of the sonnet. As they say in the coffee houses these days: Enjoy! –
Eugene Lee Hamilton (1845-1907)
‘To each his own’: so goes the Italian proverb (‘a ciascuno il suo’). Every poet has a particular concern. For Wordsworth it was that nagging instinct that we might be at the mercy of a threatening nature and the God who made it. Frank O’Hara often felt overwhelmed by the rich diversities of his city and his own place within it. Eugene Lee Hamilton’s preoccupation was the growing secularisation of society.
Not nearly as famous as his great near-contemporary Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) who described the tide of receding religious faith in his ‘Dover Beach’ and elsewhere, Hamilton managed to touch on the growing unease at the passing of the old order under pressure from a new, impatient and less reverent modern era of rapid change in social mores. His impeccable sonnet Idle Charon, a finely crafted piece, has what every poem must have: at least one riveting image. This sonnet fulfils that requirement in its reference to the ancient practice of burying a coin (the obol) with the body to pay the boatman who will ferry the departed across the river of no return to a next world, a world increasingly held in doubt. The classical reference, tinged with a peculiarly Victorian sense of loss, imbues his poem with a sharp and unforgettable poignancy.
The shores of Styx are lone forever more,
And not one shadowy form upon the steep
Looms through the dusk, far as the eye can sweep,
To call the ferry over as of yore;
But tintless rushes all about the shore
Have hemmed the old boat in, where, locked in sleep,
Hoar-bearded Charon lies; while pale weeds creep
With tightening grasp all round the unused oar.
For in the world of Life strange rumours run
That now the soul departs not with the breath,
But that the Body and the Soul are one;
And in the loved one’s mouth now, after death,
The widow puts no obol, nor the son,
To pay the ferry in the world beneath.
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