Steven Lovatt reviews Leaves by Matthew Hollis (Hazel, 2020), Mat Riches reviews The Sea Turned Thick as Honey by Holly Singlehurst (The Rialto, 2021) and Hilary Menos reviews Aunty Uncle Poems by Gboyega Odubanjo (Smith|Doorstop, 2021), winner of the 2021 Michael Marks Poetry Award for poetry pamphlets
Leaves by Matthew Hollis
Leaves is a sequence of five poems related by themes of grief, renewal and the solace to mortality offered by the natural world. There’s an austere consolation in nature’s beauty and its transcendent disinterest in individuals, but for Hollis this is finally underwritten by his belief in a cyclical, immanent metaphysic of ‘elements’ as expressed directly in the Chinese Wuxing but also in a Western tradition spanning the pre-Socratics, gnostic and Hellenistic philosophy, the Psalms, the Anglo-Saxon Maxims and modernist admirers of Old English ‘wisdom poetry’, especially T. S. Eliot. In this sense the pamphlet can fairly be called philosophical, although it’s closer to earth magic than anything rationalist or academic.
When it is personal and concrete the poetry is often beautiful, and unusually pleasurable to read aloud. My attention was caught and detained very willingly by unforced and fluent variations in line-length and rhyme, and Hollis’ adoption of Saxon alliteration can admit an appropriate melancholy grace:
your mother locked in the unlit wards
of Isleworth, long beneath her landslide,
your father lost to the unmanned miles of corridor
The poems’ address to a ‘you’ allows welcome moments of intimacy and directness, but a delightful image of plane tree leaves falling “to dunk / in the hood of a duffle coat” is the sole playful moment in a cycle that could do with more to alleviate its dominant and cumulatively wearying tone of prophesy and incantation.
When it is personal and concrete the poetry is often beautiful, and unusually pleasurable to read aloud
Hollis’ indebtedness to the modernist poets he admires, and his attraction to the Wuxing cosmography, are worn on his sleeve, and the pamphlet is accompanied by notes making clear which lines are borrowed from his favoured sources. It’s not this referential habit that grates, but rather the tone of censer-swinging obligatory seriousness, along with an excess of Eliotesque riddling and intoning – mainly because it seems unnecessary for a plainly gifted poet. Even the animals Hollis brings in to Leaves have mostly been lifted off a medieval tapestry – hawk, wolf, deer, greyhound – so it’s with something like resignation that we also anticipate and duly receive arrows, quivers and, God help us, a hunting horn. Marianne Moore’s famous definition of poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” is reversed: Leaves presents delightfully real woods inhabited by stuffed beasts of the chase. The atmosphere of lofty abstraction is ensured by the High-Church diction: “But every hallway shall have a door”; “A hawk will learn a hawker’s glove”. This is the stuff Henry Reed punctured so neatly in ‘Chard Whitlow’, and I can’t see the benefit of re-inflating it.
And it’s a pity, as I say, because this highfalutin language and medieval staffage muffle the tang and liveliness of lines like these,
Out with my dad in the scarfed cold
wondering where the burnt wood goes.
and trades immediacy for what often smacks unfortunately of sententiousness. For poems ostensibly concerned with the earth, there’s too little about Leaves that’s earthy and altogether too much that’s airy.
Steven Lovatt is a writer based in Swansea. He is a member of the International Literature Showcase, run by the British Council and the UK National Writing Centre, and his book Birdsong in a Time of Silence has been longlisted for the Wainwright Prize. Read more from Steven Lovatt.
The Sea Turned Thick as Honey by Holly Singlehurst
This pamphlet frightens me. In the Notes we are told that ‘Purple Rain’ borrows its title from Prince’s 1984 song and that ‘All Shook Up’ does likewise from the Elvis Presley’s song of 1957. Surely everyone knows this? Or am I just an old man railing against the sky and the movement of time? Ah well, I guess I should get over myself, and talk about the poems within The Sea Turned As Thick As Honey.
The pamphlet was shortlisted for the 2021 Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets alongside pamphlets by Selima Hill, Leontia Flynn, Hugo Williams and Matthew Hollis. While the eventual winning pamphlet was Gboyega Odubanjo’s excellent Aunty Uncle Poems, reviewed below, the judges said of Singlehurst’s book that to read it “is to meet so many startling, original and unforgettable images that it’s hard to imagine having not read it”.
The collection opens with the jarring ‘Exoskeleton’, a poem which comes at you hard, talking about “the way I live in my hands, / the gloves of my skin”. That last phrase is particularly grating; it feels normal at first read but then starts to feel distorted and disorientating. The speaker of this poem draws reassurance from knowing small comforts are close, in the same way that a snail feels safe “knowing its home / is always there, on its back”. They take solace in “soft grey jumper[s] and / baggy jeans”, in “the way I curl myself into you, our bones buried deep inside”, not from the discarded items that a hermit crab chooses their home from.
This movement between comfort, home and death make this poem a microcosm of the book’s themes and concerns: an almost aerial view of your own body; intimacy; the animal kingdom; and violence – both against the individual and self-inflicted
Then the poem veers into violence. Glass becomes a window as “something smashable, the way an angry man you’d smash / a plate or any one of my finger bones”. Bones, the body, touch – this is an immensely physical poem. Any romantic elements are undercut by or interspersed with threat. On a late walk the speaker sees two snails, “They were making something like love / before they crunched so easily under my foot”. This movement between comfort, home and death make this poem a microcosm of the book’s themes and concerns: an almost aerial view of your own body; intimacy; the animal kingdom; and violence – both against the individual and self-inflicted.
Given the title, it is not surprising water is everywhere in the book – wet hair, baths, rain – in fact only five of the 25 poems don’t mention water in some way. The ‘Lunch Date’ is a date ‘with the rain’, where:
When I smiled, she smiled, but she
had no mouth. She was only water,
filling and filling my cup.
In ‘Light Buckets’ the poem opens with “If you want to catch rain, you use a bucket; / a bigger bucket, you catch more rain”. ‘Stage Fright’ refers to the human heart “throbbing in its wet aria / round and round and round”, breath and fingers keeping a rhythm, and ‘The Human Microbiome’ ends, “Swimmers running out / of the grey stained surf are grateful they are built to breath on land, / grateful for their particular, human biology. As I am now with you, / slick on my fingers like the sea turned thick as honey, wetter than water”.
Certain other poems seem linked by specific imagery. ’Witch Burning’, with it’s brutal look at the impact of Sylvia Plath’s suicide and the dual standards by which women and men are judged, is juxtaposed with the impact of a bright light, in ‘Hiroshima (1961)’,
The light through my closed eyes tells me
a secret, that I am the most beautiful red.
And another, that it has travelled millions of
miles, unobstructed, to touch only my body.
The note under the title of the poem reads ‘After Yves Klein’. There are a number of ‘after’ poems in this collection, including Gertrude Stein, Górecki, Henri Matisse, and Rose Lynn-Fisher. Rose Lynn-Fisher is a photographer with a collection of photos published under the title ‘The Topography of Tears’, also the title of a poem in The Sea Turned Thick as Honey which appears to be a poetic exploration of the themes raised by a review by NPR (National Public Radio) of Lynn-Fisher’s book. The poem starts “Last night, when you cut yourself, / you used a tissue for the blood, / a slim test-tube for the tears”.
The NPR review states “When you first view Rose-Lynn Fisher’s photographs, you might think you’re looking down at the world from an airplane, at dunes, skyscrapers or shorelines. In fact, you’re looking at her tears … [There’s] poetry in the idea that our emotional terrain bears visual resemblance to the physical world; that our tears can look like the vistas we see out an airplane window. Fisher’s images are the only remaining trace of these places, which exist during a moment of intense feeling ― and then vanish”. All of which seems relevant to Singlehurst’s work. There are references to self-harm and pain throughout the pamphlet but the poet’s strength also shines through, and in the end it’s the final line of ‘A Woman Is Crying At The Tip’ that resonates: “It is the audience that shatters”.
Mat Riches is ITV’s poet-in-residence (they don’t know this). His work’s been in a number of journals and magazines, most recently Wild Court, The High Window and Finished Creatures. He co-runs the Rogue Strands poetry evenings, reviews for SphinxReview, The High Window and London Grip, and has a pamphlet due out from Red Squirrel Press in 2023. Read Mat Riches’ blog Wear The Fox Hat. Read more from Mat Riches.
Aunty Uncle Poems by Gboyega Odubanjo
In an interview with Pen to Print Gboyega Odubanjo says Aunty Uncle Poems is primarily concerned with all the Nigerians for whom London has become home. He says “I’m interested in rubbing together the many different parts of my world: London, my Nigerian culture, religion, music, parties, history, etc.” Much of the pamphlet was written in the space of two months or so, during the first lockdown in early 2020, and sounds like it – it is thematically unified and with a coherent voice.
The pamphlet opens with ‘Sunday Service’ and an invitation to people to “come forward”, and come forward they do – the aunties and uncles, the cousins, Nephew, Grandpa, Grandad, Big Mummy, a whole cast list of family members, alive and dead, jostling and crowding onto the pages, with all the attendant joys (and occasional strains) of family relationships, from Aunty 1, who kept fanta fruit twists in her wardrobe, to Uncle 3 – “black sheep […] dark horse […] scalped goat”.
Odubanjo levels a loving but clear eye on this extended family, some of which aren’t even technically family, and treats them with both humour and seriousness. “it’s just our culture” he says, in ‘In Our Country’:
[…] we got you
just need you
to pledge allegiance
to the singlet to the
Sometimes “our culture” is glamorous – the aunties and uncles holidaying in Dubai, “posing as they give thanks, whatsapping everybody,” in ‘World Parent,’ and Big Mummy’s “marble floors and many servants” in ‘Fam’ – and sometimes it’s not. In ‘Grace’,
[…] When I ask I am told that many of
the words that would describe my grandmother translate poorly and
so I am told that she was quiet and she died young quietly
This is in a poem ostensibly about how the husband wrote his name into the ground – literally – wherever he went. The juxtaposition of his name writ large on the earth and her death – about which “there is not really that much to be / said …” – is telling, and nicely done.
Odubanjo levels a loving but clear eye on this extended family, some of which aren’t even technically family, and treats them with both humour and seriousness
Odubanjo slides between the personal and the political easily. ‘Oil Music’, which featured as a Guardian Poem of the Month in August 2021, addresses our love affair with oil and its implications (“no crabs in the river. / no periwinkles to pick”) and ends on a note which manages to be both erotic and ominous:
[…] i just want you to seep.
blacken my lot.
‘Dalston Lane’ describes a family watching something from a window – is it a riot? The noise is “a street song kettled and screeching its own broken / yes”. Each family member responds differently, and the poem moves into nightmarish and surreal territory, until:
my mother stands on the corner of every road
in her arms is a book of names that she has given
and must give to the noise
i stand behind her holding her hand waiting my turn
Odubanjo also writes about his mother (and Princess Di) in ‘Blessed Princess Lady’ which is a wide ranging, complex and immensely tender poem in which his mother is a kind of Everywoman. She is “a good english girl”, her heart is a “bouquet of chopped scotch bonnets”, she is “a heritage site”. She dies “during a siege on her son’s compound”, is found dead in her home, she “dies again in the biopics” until:
[…] my mother is a white woman. nations weep. i am happy.
my mother is a white woman and is treated accordingly and this
makes me happy.
In this poem he also demonstrates a nice self-awareness and the ability to break through the fourth wall and speak straight to the reader with the delightfully knowing line:
[…] my mother asks me to stop killing her.
but i cannot i say. the work needs it and i am greedy for feeling.
These poems I like – they seem strong and original. Others I find less convincing. ‘Drake Equation’, the pamphlet’s Notes tell us, was inspired by Drake, the recording artist, and Frank Drake, an American astronomer. The poem is a fairly formless, rambling piece which intercuts Drake lyrics with observations about Drake, Drake’s fans, Drake’s music and appeal and the size of Drake’s swimming pool. It ends “I need more content”. Well, yes. And ‘Home’ is a kind of semi-erased ‘found’ poem; the text is taken from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and is the part where Boxer is being taken away in a van. I’m not convinced that removing parts of the text and spreading the remainder across the page brings anything new to a reader. But where Odubanjo is writing about his family, his poetry is vivid, lively and smart.
Hilary Menos is editor of The Friday Poem. She won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010 with Berg (Seren, 2009). Her second collection is Red Devon (Seren, 2013). Her pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith|Doorstop, 2020), won The Poetry Business International Book & Pamphlet Competition 2019. Her newest pamphlet is Fear of Forks (HappenStance, 2022)