Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Shoestring Press, 2012   £7.50

 

Reviewed by Hilary Menos, Peter Daniels and Gill Andrews:

Hilary Menos:
Nisiotis writes deceptively small poems, poems that start with local detail or chance remark but end up hitting the great big themes. In ‘A Token of Gratitude For’ he starts with “all things small/ the chemistry that put together/ 22 Park Place East” and spins through his family members to “the lavender in the flowerbeds/ in Luxembourg” and up and out into “the dawns that will come.” It's very filmic, zooming from close up to wide angle, and just about gets away with the final abstraction.

He writes about science and God and loss and writing; his poems make reference to Descartes and Pascal, metaphysics and particle physics, Sorrow and Despair (both capitalised). There is plenty of clever play in poems like ‘Plain Grammar’, quoted here in full:

There are no rules of syntax
in the grammar of loss.
Just a few cruel tenses
and a desolate verb
in first person declensions.

But even with the shortest poems there's a tendency to the grand statement, which means other brief pieces, such as ‘Core Value’, inflate themselves too far. I start to lose focus when there are multiple abstractions such as “void”, “sorrow”, “sacred”, “veil” and “dominion”, (and all of these in the nine-line poem, ‘Noiseless’).

Nisiotis writes best when he resists the studiedly poetic and the grand statement and gets on with the story. In ‘The Departure’ the narrator remembers the moment his father died. The poem takes a turn for the surreal. His father leaps out of bed and dresses in his wedding suit ready to be reunited with his dead wife. The narrator asks, “Are you sad you’re leaving?” and the poem ends with his father’s reply:

‘The Equator divides my world into two equal parts:
the joy of seeing your mother and the sorrow
of leaving you. I'm about to cross it.’
I knelt and hugged him. Then my father left.

I like the attention to detail and the energy in the first part of the poem, and I’m touched by the simplicity and power of the later part. I also can’t help liking a poet who, throwing caution to the winds (and hostage to fortune), writes ‘To All Poets’:

Take your best poem
seal it in a bottle
throw it in the sea.
Trust the vastness.

 

Peter Daniels:
This is a pamphlet of sincerely-felt poems: in many of them Nisiotis is mourning the death of his wife, and his father’s death also appears. Poetry helps with this mourning, though he knows well enough its scope is limited:

Why do I want to write about my loved ones
who are no longer here?
They wouldn’t want it.
They wanted to give and they gave
and forgot what they gave.
They never took nor claimed anything.
They were gifts themselves.

This whole poem, ‘Love’, is a good example of the way the poet strikes a balance between simplicity and banality. The language is bare and undecorated, the main device being repetition and very occasional alliteration. Every poem stands nakedly as a statement on the page, though some could easily be shared on a social network against a sunset background, like ‘To All Poets’:

Take your best poem
seal it in a bottle
throw it in the sea.
Trust the vastness.

Many poets tell themselves something like this when sending off submissions; the possible hint of humour here is swamped by the tone of more numinous vastness in the rest of the book.

On the whole the (only slightly) longer poems are stronger because they have more space to develop features beyond self-conscious wisdom, but they still have a somewhat off-putting grandeur, as in the piece about Descartes. Other portraits of historical characters are Pascal, Judas, and Simon of Cyrene, and the biblical ones raise paradoxes of faith that are haunting and human – Simon feels a source of strength in being forced to carry the cross; Judas protests

Men will forever condemn me
yet I believed in Him without a shadow
of a doubt.

This Judas is both sincere and more complex than usual. Simple sincerity is evidently the poet’s credo, as in ‘Core Value’:

It is not metaphor
that makes the poem
nor metre
nor even meaning
but your primitive heart.

Is this enough?

 

 

Gill Andrews:
Nisiotis’ pamphlet is dedicated to ‘Colette Payerne (1954-2008) and our sons, Nikolas and Theophile’. Death, family, and Christianity are strong themes in this pamphlet, and I read the poems through the prism of this dedication. Here, forexample, is ‘Bloomsbury 2008’:

“Jesus loves you”
said the stranger with a smile
as he rushed past my grief

in Bloomsbury.
I was bereft. I had no time to thank
your blond apostle, Lord.
Please thank him.

This is unshowy poetry – straightforward language simply describes what happened. Rhymes are not used, the line breaks are unremarkable and, unless you count “apostle”, there are no similes or metaphors. But the poem works well because it is held together by some lovely consonance: the J/SH sounds in “Jesus”, “stranger” and “rushed”; B/P sounds in “Bloomsbury”, “bereft”, “blond”, “apostle”, “Please”; and the F sounds linking “grief” with “bereft”. The poem has authenticity – I believe this actually happened to the author, and I believe in his emotional response. The seemingly simple tone suits the enormity of the subject matter well (I assume this concerns the death of Nisiotis’ wife).

I thought the title of ‘When The Lights Go Out’ might refer to the death of self, or perhaps to the Christian end of the world. When this happens –

perhaps then we may call to mind
what we have forgotten:
how to listen carefully
how to treat cautiously
asking for pardon
with every step we take

This implicitly criticises the poet (and perhaps all of us) for not doing these things during life. Thie poem is, however, rather too abstract to engage me, and I had similar issues with ‘Mercenary’ and with the title poem, ‘After the Equinox’. I also found myself slightly irritated by the implicit criticism: how am I ever going to get to the shops if I have to ask for pardon with every step I take? That said, poetry should grapple with the big subjects, and I applaud Nisiotis for doing just that.

There is bigheartedness about this poet, which makes his pamphlet good company.  And while he can be a little cheesy, I prefer a poem that risks over-sentimentality, over one that plays it safe. ‘Forgiveness’ is only four lines long:

Forgiveness springs
from soft coral sprouts
and fills the sea of rage
with columns of light.