Richie McCaffery reviews Diary of a Divorce by S. D. Curtis (Arc, 2020), Carla Scarano D’Antonio reviews the hispering by Sarah Hymas (Black Sunflowers, 2021) and Hilary Menos reviews Crucifox by Geraldine Clarkson (Verve, 2021)
Diary of a Divorce by S. D. Curtis
A fine Scottish poet, Morelle Smith, recommended this, S. D. Curtis’s first collection, quite out of the blue and I’m very grateful now to have had the chance to read something I might not have come across myself until years later. At its most rudimentary, this is a poetic chronicling of the process of a divorce and its post-mortem, how from the wreckage of a marriage a liveable future must somehow be reached. It is about the movement from retribution and recrimination to some sort of half-way-house of reconciliation and redemption. The speaker is the aggrieved party, creative and emotionally articulate whereas the ex-husband, is a ‘banker’ with a head for facts and figures, the emotionally remote breadwinner more interested in material wealth and the status of his office. Many of the poems subvert the heartless language of finance, as in ‘Underwritten’:
I’ve already accounted for
the anniversaries missed,
the ones past
and those still to come
with my tears, and
my womanly ailments […]
A confession. I’ve had this book now for nearly five months and have tarried and tarried about reviewing it. Not because it isn’t good, it’s excellent in fact, but because a few months ago my partner of nearly 14 years left me abruptly by letter. It tore me apart and I still feel like I’m hopelessly navigating the selva oscura of the break-up and break-down. If I’d reviewed this before my partner left me, I wonder what I’d have made of it. Might I have been smug? Who knows? My circumstances have been the obverse of Curtis’s, since I was the dreaming poet and my partner was the ambitious academic breadwinner, vide ‘To You’:
I bequeath you your lands,
your right to dominion
I skirt the borders of your manhood
like a cat seeking an open window.
To you the bread-
winning, the hard-
working. The respect.
To me, poetry.
Perhaps it’s an egocentric faux pas to bring too much of myself into a review but I say this to show that the best poetry is the sort of stuff in which we can see parallels that connect viscerally with our own lives. Mercifully in my case, there were no children involved, which was not the case with Curtis, and I don’t for a second want to make the facile mistake of saying my suffering is anywhere near as powerful. One of the strongest emotions I have felt is a temporal disruption, that both the future and present have been snatched away but a shared past too has been tainted, even nullified, which is brilliantly captured in ‘Future, Imagined’:
I imagined an old age
the chiselling of your cheekbones
smudged. My golden hair
I imagined companionship,
an equalizing of prescriptions
so that I could read you road signs
while you read me menus.
Similarly, on the topic of the past being somehow compromised by divorce or break-up, there is this discovery that everywhere you visit is redolent of that shared past, everything a reminder of what has been lost, thus the urge to find new places, like the final stanza of ‘Unanswered’:
I travel to other places only to know
they exist, to find a reality with a past
that is not ours. I seek the relief
of your absence and the balm of anonymity.
These are not mere poems of solace, they are necessary, crying out to be written and, of course, to be read
One of the major ceremonial markers of the joining together of two people is reaching the stage whereby their libraries are brought together — the differences in taste and reading habits and the overlaps as represented by duplicate copies of canonical books, which ones to keep and which ones to shed. It’s a bit of a cliché to talk about couples as ‘bookends’ but in Curtis’s expert handling, the validity of the conceit is questioned. Really, bookends are not working together to keep the books upright, they are pushing in oppositional directions, against each other:
Did you still love me then?
As they sanded down the corners
of the shelves where we rested our books
Or had you already blanched at
the lines in the corners of my eyes,
the loose flesh above the scar
where our child escaped my womb
And with that thought of escape
perhaps a realization
that there was only one door,
a hall too narrow for us to exit together
but only one by one
and someone had to be first:
Our child. Your wife. Or you.
That’s perhaps one of the most startling closing lines of any poem I’ve read, the speaker not identifying as ‘me’ but rather a possession, ‘Your wife’, like collateral damage. There are simply too many poems worthy of praise here, so I am going to close this review in a rather unorthodox way by mentioning the book’s epigraph, from John Berger, part of which goes: ‘The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.’ These are not mere poems of solace, they are necessary, crying out to be written and, of course, to be read. The ‘Banker’ might well have thought that poetry was irrelevant and unimportant, but Curtis on ‘The Last Page’ has the final most dignified word by, conversely, offering her ex-husband the means to speak, to write:
[…] The narrative
passes to you, to write your own past and therefore
your future. Naming is itself an act of rebellion
and a promise of healing. I pass you the pen,
the book and the scream. We can wait until the moment
of death, and even then — have hope.
the hispering by Sarah Hymas
In the hazy atmosphere of Morecambe Bay, where Sarah Hymas lives, dreams and reality merge, creating a fascinating natural setting. It is a world made of basic elements: air, water, earth, grass and wild flowers. The sea water in the bay is affected by high and low tides, which are themselves influenced by the moon, generating two contrasting situations: the opportunity to cross the bay at low tide, and large areas of water at high tide. This set of climatic conditions seems to be reflected in the apparently opposite nature of dreams and reality that actually co-exist in the imaginary world of both the bay and the pamphlet.
In the hispering the protagonist’s body searches for harmony with the environment in a dynamic way. The narrative line proceeds in the form of a series of prose poems, with the addition of ‘The Story’ at the end, a prose piece about a dream; the piece is framed upside down to underline the upside-down nature of dreams and reality and their blurred boundaries.
The journey starts from memories that are “intimate” and “persistent”; they shape layers that recall and retell a story, discovering new meanings and renewing it:
This dream of a meadow spreads across years, across
countries, across listeners, unfolding from your memory into
theirs. Dandelion and grass seeds blowing new timings into
Language, the body and nature merge. The experience of the body immersed in the environment allows the imagination to range; the words to linger, gestate in the mouth, and then unravel in “Glistening rivulets […] seeping through soil, rock, mulch, bone and plasma.” It is a complex interweaving and yet simple in the way that it emphasises the essential elements of creativity in a primordial context. There is a constant transaction between the components of nature, the body and language; certainties are defied in favour of “the rough terrain of imagination.”
In this context, the process of writing is crucial. Hymas delineates the process as being in a constant tension between the environment and the body:
[…] the spittle and sinew you share
with plants before a shell hardens each casing. Just as words
harden the space they disrupt.
Mind rises from the fiction of the body. Yours from
childhood and fairy tales. As sunlight is stored, of everything
grown green. Where density seems solid. Membranes vibrate
The hispering (a made-up word) seems to connect all these elements together:
The word you found for it was hispering. The forgotten
utterings that linger in meadow-traces issuing up, down, or
in. An unknown unrecognisable being or creature. The sound
of grasses swaying through grasses. Thinkings or respondings
to what is not understood.
It is a murmuring and a whispering and implies memory; it emerges from nature and from the body and loosely defines the process of creation that lingers in the mind and takes shape in writing.
The story at the end of the pamphlet echoes the encounter with a creature or a voice that is already present throughout the book, and retells it. This encounter happens in a meadow; it shocked the protagonist at first but then, once the creature is revisited, it reveals its innocent offering of “a cluster of flowers”. The flowers have “pinky-tissued star-shaped pointy petals” that surprise the subject and open it up to the creature’s dreamlike reality, to the world of the imagination.
There is a constant transaction between the components of nature, the body and language; certainties are defied in favour of “the rough terrain of imagination”
Sarah Hymas is a multi-media artist and poet. She has published two poetry collections with Waterloo Press, Host (2010) and Melt (2020), and has been shortlisted for numerous awards including the New Media Writing Prize and the Ivan Juritz Prize for Creative Experiment. Her work explores the uncertain and multi-layered human condition and the process of growth via writing in harmony with the environment. The poems in the hispering imply that thinking is never an isolated process but arises out of the interaction between the ecosystem and the body within it. It’s an insightful mediation.
Crucifox by Geraldine Clarkson
I take issue with Kathryn Maris when she says, at the front of Crucifox, “Geraldine Clarkson is — quietly, attentively, humbly — writing some of the best poems of our time.” Clarkson herself might be quiet, attentive and humble, I don’t know. But her poems aren’t. These poems are smart, surreal, knowing, sometimes whimsical, sometimes impenetrable, always confident. I’d like to take her out for a pint. On the basis of the poems in this, her fourth pamphlet, I think she’d be great company.
For example, ‘After ‘IF—’. Only a brave woman would take Rudyard Kipling on, and Clarkson knocks it out of the park. She starts,
If you can loose your heart from headlock,
and touch it, puggish and stubborn
as it is, stunted fist, and keep its company,
and learn its tongue, half-mute, unbuckled
from its bridle—
and she does indeed unbuckle her tongue and is off on a crazy merry-go-round, pastiching the old colonial, spitting heartfelt denunciations of supposed virtues, people-pleasers, ersatz prophets and,
those who placed the rules in metal struts
across your mental shoulder blades, before you knew what rules
were—old rules—and yet knew—
It’s such a joy to read, with Clarkson’s sheer pleasure in sound evident. In just these first eight lines we get loose / mute / struts / rules / knew, we get heart / half / mute / mental / metallic, we get stubborn / stunted / company / tongue. The sound and the sense move in tandem, and we can feel the poet digging in to her craft for pleasure, ours and her own.
She’s great at surreal imagery too. In ‘The Fainting Room’, the eponymous room is “set aside for the more friable ladies”. In ‘Christmas Surgery’ she meets a “beige-faced nurse” wielding “something like a melon-baller” for surgery that sounds more like an exorcism, and says,
My old grey spirit, under the influence
of medication, folded its limbs beneath
But even after tablets, belly prodding and the removal of “a green streamer of pus / festive as muck” the poem remains punchy to the end:
devils on horseback,’ she said, ‘before we
have our crackers. Hold tight.’
I’m less convinced by her prose poems, of which there are maybe six, most of which are a page or so long in solid justified text. Partly because I think she puts too many adjectives in, and not always useful or fresh ones. In ‘Apple Snow’, she has “sour crab apples” (are they ever anything but?) and in ‘Compliments of the Patron’ the assistant “fixed me with an almond eye” which feels clichéd. ‘In Old Mr Spence’s Kitchen’ pretty much every item comes with its attendant adjective (weasel light, frayed rattan blinds, dotty fruit flies, whiny vase, itchy nose, latex wrist) — of course adjectives convey information, paint a picture, give colour and so on, but the use of so many seems to weigh the writing down like too much fruit on a branch. The prose poems also don’t have quite the same dash, the bravado, the dense celebration of sound of her other poems.
These poems are smart, surreal, knowing, sometimes whimsical, sometimes impenetrable, always confident
But I love what she’s trying out in the four Fox poems, Fox, the Prisoner; Fox, the Prisoner II; FOX NEWS : CREATRIX and CROSSFOX : CROSSBOX. One poem is in the shape of a crossword, one is the clues for the crossword, the others riff on the nature of a fox. The pamphlet’s dedication is a quote by Marianne Moore, “a fox sees all that there is to be seen, And from all sides”. Which is what Clarkson is doing here, circling her subjects — which are, in the words of the blurb, “rebellion, emergence from disappointment and fasting, new beginnings, recreation following destruction; soulwork; inspiration and the act of writing itself” — and seeing them from all sides.
And there are poems here where she goes for it big time and really pulls off something powerful. In ‘On a Hill” she writes about how, and where she might encounter God:
Maybe via an angel, masquerading
as a stranger. Or in the bath,
public or private—it’s not unheard of.
But her encounter — if that’s what it is — comes through the writing of poetry. Granted, the poem is ballasted with a quote from Genesis, and uses weighty, biblical language, but even if she’s using borrowed tools, she’s making her own thing with them, and it’s great.
Clarkson doesn’t do neat lyric poems with a carefully curated small insight at the end. She ranges, she riffs, she has sprawl, in the Les Murray sense of the word. Her poems finish with a swagger, a wink, or (occasionally) a shot in the dark. Sometimes I have no idea what is going on, but I’ll take this over delicate restraint and tidy closure any day. Clarkson is a breath of fresh air.