Ex Libris- David Hughes-review

 
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Sometimes I think poetry is a small world- there are the legends, of course- Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney – and the modern greats – Armitage,Carol Ann Duffy,James Nash and after them there’s us – the wannabes and has-beens who keep on struggling to produce something that is better than mediocre. You rarely get a poet who comes out of nowhere and blows your socks off.

David Hughes, however, is such a poet. He taught English Literature in York from 1975 to 1991 – a career ended with a climbing accident in which a friend and colleague died.PTSD put an end to his teaching career, though not his writing.

His life became intertwined with a troubled young man (also called David) who was also a writer and poet. The two of them became a writing team – Young Dave and Old Dave. In 2008 Young Dave was sent to prison for an assault and sent poems to David Hughes for comment for comment. ” Young David and I,” he wrote, “wish them to be attributed to both of us.” A lot of his later writing is part of this project.

What does he write about ? Climbing and landscape figure in the early work, and he writes with immediacy and verve.

“Ice across our faces till our breaths begin to freeze
into our hoods, snow goggles glaze, becoming masks
Of plated frost, and compass needles disappear

He writes about war, including a stunning response to Edward Thomas’s ” Adlestrop.”

His technique is unobtrusive, controlled,making the structure reflect the meaning.

Without doubt his best work comes from the collaboration with Young Dave. In one of the prison poems – ” things I miss” -Dave (Which one ? Does it matter?) writes ” the smell of traffic in a queue” and ” the touchdown hiss of settling snow on leaves.”
Look at that last line again…isn’t it perfect ?

The two most successful poems reference the Bible,and the division of souls into sheep and goats.They examine the nature of charity. If you do something good, something charitable, should you be praised for it ? If you receive charity, should you be grateful ? Or is charity something that just happens – an exchange of energy between two souls ? These are poems which leave an echo.

“Ex Libris” is the first hardback from Valley Press. It is beautifully produced, with head and tail bands, and even a ribbon marker.

There’s a man’s life here, and his thoughts, and David Hughes is a man worth listening to.
You can buy it here:

http://www.valleypressuk.com/

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“Couples” by Michael Stewart

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What makes a good poem ? What makes you read beyond the first line ?
A few things stand out.

Brevity, for a start. By and large the long-form narrative poem is dead ( Reading “Paradise Lost” ? Maybe you should get out a bit more.) Poetry is shrinking and the haiku is king.

Balance. A good poem is a deeply felt, personal response to experience. On the other hand, it must strike a universal chord with the reader. It must make the reader empathise, or at least respond to the ideas on the page.

It’s a difficult balance to strike.

A good poem is accessible. If it’s Eliot’s “ The Waste Land “( with added notes !) then I’m not interested. Pretention and self obsession are real turn-offs. But it mustn’t be trite, or cliche-ridden either. There’s nothing more depressing than feel-good poetry.

Another difficult balancing act.

How does the poem relate to other poems ?

Now I’d never thought of this until I read “Couples “ by Michael Stewart ( pub: Valley Press £6.00.) This is a short collection of 24 poems, placed in twelve pairs that face each other across the page. The two halves of each couple are complementary – “ Cam” and “ Shaft”, “ Hook” and “ Clasp.” It’s a brilliant idea and it works well- your feelings about one poem are filtered through your feelings for the other.

Some of the pairings are quite formal- “Him” and “Her” explore differing attitudes to sex. For Him
‘He only felt loved
after sex sex for him
was his lover giving herself to him..”

And for Her:
“she would only have
sex if she felt loved
when he came to her”

Balanced, clever and formal- but watch out for the sting in the tail, which I won’t ruin for you.

Michael Stewart is really sharp with relevant detail- a week’s menus, favourite films, the imprint of a lover’s lipstick on a tissue- it all adds up to an intricate account of the things that keep people together, whether they are “standing next to each other/ two sheep in a field” or “two moving parts/rubbing together/until they stick.”

This collection ticks all the boxes I set out at the beginning – it’s concise, accessible, and resonant.

And I loved it.

You can buy “ Couples” here:

http://www.valleypressuk.com/books/couples/

Some Things Matter

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Everyone knows about sonnets- you know- 14 lines divided into an octet, a quatrain and a rhyming couplet at the end. Shakespeare wrote 154 of them ( including the ones in his plays) and Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney were both enthusiastic practitioners. Later on, Milton wrote sonnets, as did Wordsworth, but who reads them nowadays ?

Actually the sonnet has never quite gone away. “ Anthem for Doomed Youth “by Wilfred Owen is a sonnet….had you noticed that ? You don’t, straight away ,because you’re carried away by the anguish and bitterness of the poem. But you check- and it is. The fact that Owen packed so much emotional power, both personal and universal, into such a constricting format makes it even more impressive.Edwin Morgan, Robert Frost and Seamus Heaney have written sonnets as well.

And now I come to “ Some Things Matter” a collection of sixty three sonnets by James Nash, published by Valley Press. James Nash became interested in sonnets after going to a workshop in 2009. Two years later he had written more than 160- and this collection is the cream of the crop.

It’s the best poetry collection I’ve read in years- honestly.

Why ? Let me tell you.

Firstly, the range is immense. James Nash deals with love and loss- the stock in trade of every poet- but he also talks about sending old clothes to the charity shop, gardens, wasps- even a sonnet about bags for life. A sonnet about plastic bags ! That’s brave !

The language throughout is restrained, controlled. It’s emotional and deeply moving in places, but never sentimental. Look at the last two lines of sonnet on old clothes:

“ What if when these garments are gone at last,
I mourn those faded textures of my past”

Notice that he ends on a question. No easy answers here. What about “ mourn”- we mourn for the dead, yes, but also for our younger selves, as we get older. And “ faded textures of my past” sums up, not just a bag of clothes, but our feelings towards a past we can remember, but not return to.

The last point I want to make is about imagery. Good poetry has echoes, resonances, as well as explicit meaning, and James Nash is a master of this difficult art. Look at his Sonnet 24, which is about sitting in the garden one late summer evening “listening to the hidden blackbird’s song.” It’s a wonderful calm moment. And yet it will “ Not be long before the chilly wind arrives” “ Past memories must be hoarded still/ against the darkness and the loss.” Memories will help us carry on “ As darkness falls , and one of us has gone.” He means the end of a summer evening, yes- but he also means the death of a loved one.

James Nash manages to do what few poets can- he puts into words the feelings we all have, and yet are too tongue-tied to express.

Read him.

You can buy “Some Things Matter here:

http://www.valleypressuk.com/