Three brief reviews -- of individual poems -- were completed as one of the bi-monthly free competitions on the HappenStance website. There is another review competition there now. Please take a look! But meanwhile, here are the winning pieces so far.
Jo Field on Helen Clare’s Entomology
Oh the joy of the perfectly-formed picture book! Every copy of Where the Wild Things Are or The Gruffalo is like a fresh strawberry dropped into a crate of mysterious Ugli fruit; the Ugli being those books churned out for small children which seem to fall short of the mark; the Mystery being how some of them achieved publication at all. Although admittedly in the odd case (Budgie the Little Helicopter anyone?), the reason may be fairly clear.
Surely there can’t be many of us who are unfamiliar with Eric Carle’s masterpiece of simplicity The Very Hungry Caterpillar. And look! Here he is again, our hero, albeit updated with attendant complications, maybe even metamorphosed into a different gender. Cleverly, he/she has insinuated him/herself into the very heart of the eighteen other sonnets in Helen Clare’s pamphlet Entomology. How I love a good joke, and this is a good joke: Larvus megafamishus cocooned among such seriously adult insects as Stenolemus bituberus, Blattella germanica, Filodes mirificalis. Which is not to say the famished larva lacks weight, nor indeed that its fellows are without a degree of lightness.
This ‘velveteen’ People’s Princess, her vulnerability intact − ‘too delicious/to be inedible, too bright to be unseen’ − is carried along by basic rhythm and solid rhyme like antidotes to the ‘wheatgrass’ and ‘goji berries’ of today’s celebrity culture with its fixation on little else but style: ‘I’m something of a role model//so must sustain my image and the measure-/ments befitting a national treasure’.
Unlike the opening paragraph of this review, Helen’s ‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’ is firmly ‘on message’, with cameos from Martin Bashir, Twitter, the ubiquitous Five-a-Day, and more. Thank goodness, though, the fun is untainted by reference to any rumoured enthusiasm for Colonic Irrigation.
Joanna Dobson on 'Shaela' from Stephanie Green’s Flout
The hospital lights are harsh and her face is drained of colour. She lies foetal on the trolley, clutching her knees to ease the pain in her stomach and I am standing helpless beside my baby, my baby who is eighteen now and will soon be off to university.
The doctors don’t know what is causing the cramps but I think I could cure it. I could wrap her tightly in a handknitted Shetland blanket, the kind they call a ‘hap shawl’. I could carry her to a lochside and rock her beside the water, watching the stars come out while she drifted asleep. I have been in the place that ‘Shaela’ comes from.
The speaker in ‘Shaela’ is knitting a shawl so fine she can pull it through her wedding ring in a swoop like the sliding and circling of the crying seals. Is it air or wool, this gossamer shawl, and where does each seal begin and end? ‘At the dead time, when the world’s asleep’, she and her child are completely alone: she has given him her breast and who can say where she ends and he begins?
I too have cradled my babe at the dead of night, when the world was asleep and the house was breathing deep and slow. There in my arms, she lacked nothing she needed.
Now I stand uselessly on the scuffed linoleum, and the glaring lights illuminate the rupture between us. Others have what she needs now. The doctors decide to whip out her appendix and soon she will be off on the road she has chosen
I want her to leave and I want her to stay, my moon-gazer bairn, and who can tell where the joy ends and the mourning begins?
Bob Horne, on ‘Landscape’ from Ross Kightly’s Gnome Balcony
Landscape and Norman MacCaig, so the poet tells us, get along together well. So do landscape and Ross Kightly, but whereas MacCaig seeks Schiehallions anywhere, and climbs them, Kightly’s narrator is content with the ‘easy sheep slopes’ of existence.
Not for him excesses of temperature and topography. In a series of extravagantly chiming (and ironically comic) couplets he expresses his disdain for those archetypal seekers after extremes, addicted to Arctic ice floes, ‘slime-green dank dark crab-scuttling/ coastal caverns’ or ‘razor-edged ridges of mountain ranges’. The obvious delight in creating word-pictures is in inverse proportion to the allure of these edges of existence.
In the second half of the poem we leave behind the glut of Gothic imagery and enter a fairytale world. There is no need to ‘tackle’ the inhospitable; it is possible now to ‘walk’ where there are ‘nice houses’ and a ‘swallow barn’, where gates open and close. Yes, there is a ‘rocky slope’ but it holds no threat. Even the ‘gorse lair of the Woolly Wolf’ suggests a benign protector rather than a dissembling predator on the vulnerable. And at the end is a gentle descent to ‘the coast the mere and the castle’. The castle is probably made of gingerbread.
However, the ‘easy’ walk passes ‘the wind-torn lone thorn’, lent significance by its definite article. A landmark in the landscape. This is the ‘wind-warped upland thorn’ of Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’, the ‘sharp hawthorn’ through which the ‘hurricanoes’ blow in King Lear. It is a resonant and recurring symbol of the resilience of the human spirit.
Moreover, the narrator is not alone, and this is important. Green pastures and companionship are an endless reassurance to one who has lived in the fringes of wilderness. He knows they will ‘never ever fail us’.