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.

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