Friday, 9 October 2015


The Islands, 1961
Curious, interesting exhibition, though I left feeling vaguely uncomfortable, as though I'd been asked to enjoy someone's desperation.  I understand that Martin suffered from schizophrenia (is that still allowed that word?), and it is almost too easy to see her art as a desperate way of controlling the world.  On each square canvas - and they are almost uniformly square - she imposes grids of faint washes of acrylic or pencil - sorry, graphite - that, in such numbers attests to an almost worrying obsession.  It is as though Durer, say, was only ever intrested in painting rabbits.  The curious, paradoxical effect is both of the very abstract, cold, and the extremely self-expressive.  The result is that there is little place actually for the spectator to play. Having said that, there are works, which, close up,  have an almost hypnotic effect, a little like the way one begins to see patterns in the wallpaper or plaster while soaking in the bath.  I like the painting - actually gold leaf inscribed with pencil - called 'Friendship', made up of pairs of contiguous oblongs, all a little different.  I liked as well 'The Islands' with its smudgy white daubs.  These seem somehow to reflect rather than impose.  They are more generous and inviting.  Against these there is a series of paintings called 'The Island' - paintings that are supposed to hang - to be seen - together.  You have to have very good eyesight to enjoy them as a single work, because, from amidships,  they resemble simple squares of white.  Of them Martin wrote that they are 'formless'.  I think the utter reverse; they are deeply formulaic - that is their essence.  What I miss from this exhibition is the physical - any sense of release: the paintings are humourless (there is hardly a curve to be seen), and, rather, in the end, loveless. I left, as I say, feeling pity rather than awe, but at least wondering, not for the first time, what the point of art is.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

SONG: Jemmy Jumps, in the Farmer

This is from a publication called Edwin's pills to purge melancholy: containing all the songs sung by Mr. Edwin, ... since his first appearance in London.  It was published by William Holland in 1788 (Holland's was on the corner of Oxford Street and Berners Street).  I came upon it while researching the life of the great Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza, whose name appears in the final verse.  Anyway, whatever the hell it is about, it's a cracker and very probably rather low.

LOOK'E, dear Ma'am, I'm quite the thing,
Nattibus hey ! tippity ho!
In my shoe I wear a string,
Tied in a black bow, so.
Cards and dice! I've monst'rous luck;
I'm no drake, yet keep a duck,
Tho'not married, yet I'm a buck,
Lantherum swash, kee-vi.

I've a purse well stock'd with—brass,
Chinkity hey! tinkity ho!
I've good eyes, but cock my glass,
Stare about, squintum ho!
In two boots I boldly—walk,
Pistol, sword, I never balk,
Meet my a man, and bravely—talk,
Pippity pop, coupee.

Sometimes mount a smart cockade,
Puppydum hey, struttledum, ho!
From High-Park to the Parade,
Cock my cary kee,
As I pass a sentry-box,
Soldiers rest their bright firelocks,
Each about his musquet knocks,
Rattledum slap, to me!

In the Mall, Ma'am gives her card,
Cashedy me, kissady she!
Sit before the stable-yard,
Leg-orum lounge a-row;
Pretty things I softly say
When I'm ask'd our chairs to pay,
Yes, says I, and walk—away
Pennybus tartum, ho!

At Boulogne I liv'd a week,
Frickasee hey! trickasee ho!
There fine French I learnt to squeak,
Grinnybuss skiptum, ho!
Slap French clack about, hauteur,
Nevetle chef daeuvre, bon douceur,
En bon point, quel tout mon caeur
Fiddledee foll, hee hee!

Rotten row, my Sunday-ride,
Trottledum hey, tumble off, ho!
Poney, eighteen-pence a side,
Windgall, glanderum, ho!
Cricket I fam'd Lumpey nick,
Daddles, smouch Mendoza lick:
Up to, ah! I'm just the kick,
Allemande cap'rum toe

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Monday, 28 September 2015


My pal Sam's son Will is a mean guitarist.  And he has a jazz trio cleverly disguised as a quartet. Have a listen.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Poem by e.e. cummings

a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man

p.56, Selected Poems, 1923-1958 (Faber, 1960)

Saturday, 12 September 2015


I have mixed feelings about Corbyn's triumph: shame, obviously, that a man with such repugnant associations should be the leader of a major British political party; embarrassment that the the Labour Party should have reduced itself to ridicule; excitement at the prospect of some hitherto unlikely politics; fear that a demagogue will be elected into power in 2020; but, above all, a kind of melancholy at the sheer stupidity that has brought it to pass. But, hey, what do I know? I'm just an ageing bloke with a belief in that old-time liberal democracy.  And, ok, I admit, the feelings aren't really that mixed.

Sunday, 6 September 2015


My review of two Templar pamphlets,
from IOTA magazine, Summer 2014 (Issue 94)

by Kim Lasky
Templar, £4.50

This Afternoon and I
by Sarah Robey
Templar, £4.50

Two of the three winners of the 2012/2013 Iota Shot pamphlet competition, Sarah Roby and Kim Lasky are both expressive poets, their voices distinctively their own. Though the pamphlets are very different in style and substance, they share an internal coherence that perhaps lifted them above other submissions.

Lasky’s Eclipse, is a “brief lyric sequence” in free verse.  Lasky spent time with astronomers during a residency in the Astronomy and Physics Department at the University of Sussex, and the result is this slim pamphlet.  It is best read as a single poem, themes and images woven through the sequence to make it whole.

It is addressed to a never wholly revealed “you” who tells the poet about “the relative size / of moon and earth” (p.1, lines 5&6), or that “on a clear night… / the moon is a plump blood orange” (p. 2, lines 1&2), who talks “for hours about such things” (p.3, line 2) as the speed of light.  Most of the sections begin with this telling of astronomical fact, which is then taken from the sky, as it were, and bedded in the quotidian.  And so we move from Galileo’s telescoping of the moon to his daughter’s request for linen, from the mathematics of E=mc2 to speedy black coffee, from “the curvature of space-time” (p.4, line 3) to “a curvature of the spine” (p.4, line 10).

As the sequence develops, so phrases get repeated, images recur, often with symbolic heft: black coffee, dark matter, horses, a tarpaulin, telescopes, fruit (apples especially, Newtonian and paradisal and so on).  It becomes clear that there is a tentative narrative, and a certain place: a farm, from the windows of which the poet and “you” watch the sky, where they become intimate, and then abandon one another: “gravitational attraction / between two bodies dies with distance” (p.10, line 8).

The sequence grows with the reading and re-reading.  To purloin a simile, the re-reading is like the focusing of a telescope.  Clarity emerges. Eclipse has a delicate coherence, beginning with Galileo and ending with Genesis. To dissect much further would be verging on murder. 

Sarah Roby is a very different kind of poet.  While we might imagine Lasky at work with a Rotring pen, Roby we see as happier with a packet of good broad-nibbed felt tips.  This poet likes to fill the page.

The first poem in the pamphlet, ‘H. Rider Haggard’s Bare-Knuckle Wrestle with Time-on-his-Hands’ is divided into six three-line verses, but there is no obvious reason other than to give the reader a pause for breath between gobbets of the poet’s enjoyable rant.  She obviously is not a fan of H. Rider Haggard, for whom it is difficult not to feel a little sympathy. The effect is to send one back to King Solomon’s Mines to see what the fuss is about.

Having just disapprovingly read She, the poet is now to be found, in company with the afternoon of the collection’s title, “sloughed in front of a matinee” (p. 2, line 3), watching Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen.  I think the poet may disapprove of that, too, but she is obviously drawn to adventure, or perhaps only Africa.

Adventure continues in ‘Levity III’.  Levity III is, in real life, a luminaria, “designed to generate a sense of wonder at the beauty of light and colour,” according to the literature. The poet’s children appear to enjoy it. The poet’s partner is not convinced.  He is “effortful in patience” (p. 5, line 7). This leads to the poem’s conclusion, where its meaning lies. The partner lets “a defence or two / fall, and smiles” (p. 5, line 9/10) promising lift off (or, of course, “levity”) for the adults, but it is not be because the adventure is over and bath time and work beckon.

There’s homework too to do in the following poem ‘The Present Participle’.  As in the previous poem, it is Sunday.  Mother and son should really be outside.  The boy “needs his Sunday trees to climb” (p.6, line 9). As the next poem (‘I Spy in the Home’) unfolds it is difficult not to imagine the son liberated and the mother left to watch a butterfly emerge. Sunday (perhaps ‘Sunday and I’ might have been a more apt title for the collection?) continues in ‘The Aurelian’.  I don’t know whether you are supposed to know Nabokov’s short story, but an ‘aurelian’ is someone interested in butterflies.  The poet here puts herself in that position, netting and pinning a butterfly. It is of course a work of irony in which the narrator unwittingly demonstrates the cruelty of reducing a living thing to a mere emblem, coffined  “in a glass-topped box” (p. 9, line 3).

‘Fantasy’ evokes four different daydreaming moods.  The poet is doing yoga while watching the news (I think), listening to Billie Holiday, dreaming as Emma Bovary dreamed - of having everything - and ends invoking Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘In the Willow Shade’, Roby’s wet hair standing in for the willow.

I sat beneath a willow tree,
Where water falls and calls;
While fancies upon fancies solaced me,
Some true, and some were false.

to realise how a history of hunching,
hair dripped, over white paper
will mean each new idea
begins Within the willow
                                    Roby (p.11, lines16-20)

There follow two sonnets, perhaps the best poems in the little collection, ‘Ritual’ and ‘Ritual II’, both commencing with the truth that “Secular living still needs ritual” (p.12, line 1).  In the former, the more successful, or at least more touching, of the two, there is a hint of Heaney-like tenderness in the octave; the sestet has a Larkinian tinge, especially in the melancholia of the last line, “a reminder that we matter, here, now”.

The final two poems share a similar technique, using analogy as metaphor. But I did not understand ‘Protest Song’ which mixes PJ Harvey singing and her mother-in-law having “an imperceptible heart attack” (p.14, line 8).  This is perhaps an antonymic analogy, but the full meaning escaped me. 

The last poem, ‘How we grieve now’ I hesitate to criticize, as it concerns  a still birth and is written in memory of Michael Jackson.  It is an uncomfortable poem to read, and powerful.  We are a long way from H. Rider Haggard.

DE BEERS by Kate Bingham

At first it’s microscopic. A bubble in a bubble
in a stoppered bottle of champagne, it incubates.

It carries on a wind of violins, hooks into her finger like a thorn,
a ward seed chewing through layer after layer of skin.

Steadily it works itself to the very bone and grows
as fat and white as a blister, harder than a stone.

It ladders her tights and gets infected, snagging hair and coats
as she brushes up against them on the tube, in restaurants.

She keeps her fist in her pocket, learns to shop with gloves.
She gets verruca acid on prescription and a packet of Elastoplast

which curls in the bath and peels off soggy polos of dead flesh
to give the parasite a more pronounced appearance.

Steadily she grows accustomed to its face. She cleans it
with a cotton-wool bud dipped in liquid nitrogen.

It starts to gleam. And now she looks at it all the time,
twisting her hand this way and that in the sunlight, like a fiancée.

from Cohabitation, Seren, 1998

I've filched this off Kate Bingham's website, which is here:

I'm very honoured to be reading with Kate at the Torbay Festival of Poetry, on Sunday October 25th, in, er, Torbay.

MYTLE by Ruth Wiggins

This is my review for sabotage of Myrtle, by Ruth Wiggins, also available here:

by Ruth Wiggins
The Emma Press, £6.50, 26pp

Reviewed by Wynn Wheldon

I thought I was going to have trouble with this, what with the first poem being all right justified and containing words with spaces between their letters for no very obvious reason. But then I decided that since it was called ‘Against Perspective’ I’d chuckle instead. 

My fear was dispelled by and the chuckle grew broader with the next poem, called ‘I’ve Been Crumbling Anti-Histamines Into Your Food All Week’, in which a new home is turned into a bower: “the whole thing seeds itself up the street. Early outbreaks / of lovage, sweet briar, vetch”.  Here we are on the floral side of Myrtle.  But the poet is a classicist, and in the Rome of Ovid and his fellows the Latin word myrtus (myrtle) was a non-vulgar euphemism for the female pudenda. Myrtle was considered aphrodisiac, and is associated with Aphrodite in Greek myth and Venus in Roman.  So having given us the floral, the poet now introduces us to the clitoral, or at least the aphrodisiacal, in ‘Borrowed Time’: “This afternoon you fucked me, right out / of my pyjamas and into yours” Thenceforth the poems hover back and forth, between the intimate and the public, with diversions into the quotidian here and there.

There’s plenty of tenderness, of a robust kind: “Come the apocalypse” there’ll be “usurping girls / …I’ll just / have to learn to kill”.  In a rather macabre love poem, ‘On Fear of Your Flying’ her lover’s sperm “startle // into memento mori”.  His having not died, I can’t believe her partner would not want to be identified as the “gorgeous boy” of the final poem, a play on a deliciously euphemistic Horace ode: “Be mine, right here beneath / this cheerful old vine”.

Horace is not the only classical poet Wiggins borrows from.  She does a wonderful job with a Propertius elegy.  ‘Only the Lover’ begins “Silly mortals, always second-guessing / the hour of your death…”

You type your vital stats into
but from the Circle Line to Tora Bora,
all exit points are hidden.

The language, the forms, the prosody in all these poems is unabashed, unafraid and enjoyably energetic.  Best of all, each poem is a surprise. Wiggins has a distinctive voice, characterised not by sameness but by unexpectedness. ‘Crawk’ is a poem about birds. I thought at first the reference was to crows, but the subject of the poem has a “quarrel of sisters”, which suggests sparrows; then again, towards the poem’s end she “Grouts her gizzard and gargles with rocks”.  Who knows what bird this is (it follows a poem, ‘Leda’ that features not one but several swans, not to mention eagles) – but it doesn’t really matter.  The poem draws the reader in, for it is full of activity, having begun with the teasingly abstract “She’s the opposite of mirrors”, from where we have no idea where the poem will lead us.

Yes, unexpectedness: there’s a poem describing the poet’s battle with a spider; a poem about the herb rosemary; a poem that bounces from side to side of the page, about the coming of spring, “cracking a courtyard laugh”; there are poems inspired by paintings; there’s a nanny goat and there’s a fox.

Myrtle is a thoroughly assured collection informed by classical learning and tempered with an erotic hum that underlies several of the poems. It delights in hoisting the ideas and images that prose cannot without preparation.  It is thorough poetry, and surprisingly a debut. There’ll be more.