Shoestring Press, 2009    £5.00


Reviewed by Emma Lee, Michael Tolkien and Hilary Menos

Emma Lee:


‘A Hard Thing to Sell’ offers light verse on a shell-fish theme:

It’s a hard way to live.

It’s a hard thing to sell

Is life in a shell.

It’s hard to forgive.


But in God’s weird endeavour

It’s outside or inside,

Boneside or skinside,

So give thanks to whichever.


Give thanks to your skin!

Give thanks to your shell!

And move heaven and hell

to remain therein.


This is the most hymn-like piece in the collection. Elsewhere we find philosophical limpets:


Each in our shelly wigwam hides,

Fast in our purpose, though contentious;

Daily are nourished by the tides

That duly drench us.


Our one illusion is a sport,

That what we gain will somehow last,

Our little empire a mere thought

Of what has passed.


The first line of the two stanzas above seems to me to show the occasional slip in tone in what is otherwise very carefully controlled language.  “Shelly wigwam” is a sound image but surely a weaker choice when surrounded by the more prayer-like “daily are nourished” and “duly drench”, as if it was a different part of the sequence. In a pamphlet of only six poems, each one is under a microscope and the slightest slip in tone calls for attention, like the inadvertent shuck of a shell yanked from a rock.


It is only natural in a pamphlet on this theme that the sea’s bounty gets eaten too. In ‘Festin d’Oursin’:


Lunch is walking across my plate,

Not for long, but long enough.

My spoon descends. It is too late.

I call the moving creature’s bluff.

A squeeze of quartered lemon begs

Forgiveness of the stirring legs.


This seems somewhat mean after effectively celebrating the creatures so far, but is saved by the final couplet:


Where souls are gathered and are spilled

Upon the plate to prove our guilt.


John Fuller is always worth reading for control of language, even with very minor inconsistencies. Still, however good the poetry and decent the production values—and they are good here with card cover and good weight paper—the price seems steep. Similar length pamphlets elsewhere would be a half to two-thirds of the price.



Michael Tolkien:

Six substantial lyrics in a fine chapbook: typeface is discreet but clear and on quality paper inside an embossed cover. A pleasing way to sample Fuller’s mixture of mock-didactic, fantasy, and too-straight-to-be-serious but nevertheless informative observation. A sequence impressive both in its parts and total impact.


I’m glad to be reminded of this poet’s unerringly crafted ‘light’ verse: the lightness of an easy surface which is not superficial in intent. Its varieties of form and rhyme scheme always feel integral to a unique, complex purpose. I delight in Lear and Carroll but can’t stomach shellfish, an ambiguity resolved for me by the way the iridescent surface of this work celebrates, sometimes with hymn-like solemnity, edible maritime shelled creatures: crab, limpet, mussel, lobster, turtle, sea-urchin.  I can’t resist quoting an extended epic simile for the lobster’s lordly progress:


As chobdars obdurate in

Their noble masters’ cause

Take besoms of bright straws

In the prompt discipline

Of sweeping from the public street

Urchins assembling at their feet


So the lobster keeps

The sea bed clear before him:

The creatures can’t ignore him,

But lurch in panic heaps

Before the silent Fee-Faw-Fum

Of his serrated bulldog thumb.


Each creature is approached with a specific angle, verse form and zany narrative context: the crab only comes in after lengthy innuendos about our defenceless anatomy; the turtle is the victim of hunters and cookery buffs; and each poem is distinctly flavoured with quizzical, jocular, whimsical comments on shell-beings’ relations with and contrasts to a greedy, gormandising, deluded humankind, which is—surprise, surprise—all part of far-sighted providence or remorseless fate. (More reasons for hymning!)


In ‘The Trumpet addresses the Limpet’, two objects whose assonance is all they have in common are looked at (as if it’s a natural process) to develop contrasts between an instrument that denotes action or physical endeavour and a creature of passive resistance, and only through one valve! But the final twist after mock-epic reflections on a “grim grandma” and her grotesque appetite is that limpet and man also have much in common:


Each in our shelly wigwam hides,

Fast in our purpose, though contentious;

Daily are nourished by the tides

That duly drench us.


Our one illusion is a sport,

That what we gain will somehow last,

Our little empire a mere thought

Of what has passed.


Notice a tonal and rhythmic hint of hymnody in these stanzas!



Hilary Menos:

For those who read a lot of contemporary poetry, John Fuller probably feels like an anachronism. His verse is often described as comic-Auden; witty, technically dextrous, and playful. He’s a keen observer of form and rhyme, and clearly enjoys demonstrating a wide knowledge of the English language. Each poem feels like a neat (if rather lengthy) package for us to unwrap, verse by verse, and be wowed by, from the first clever conceit to the final moral injunction. Nothing like the sprawling blank verse or equivocal offerings of so many modern poets.


Fuller has been widely published; sixteen collections of poetry, nine works of fiction, various prizes and awards. This pamphlet, The Shell Hymn Book, consists of six poems on just thirteen pages of poetry, so this volume is definitely on the slim side of slim. It’s nicely produced, though, with a good quality, slightly textured grey cover which I kept wanting to stroke.


Inside, the pamphlet is stuffed with limpets, crabs, lobsters, sea urchins and the like, in a kind of Lewis-Carroll-cum-Roald-Dahl underwater/gastronomic tour.


Fuller’s rhythms are jaunty and his lines are heavily end-stopped with full or nearly-full rhymes that sometimes delight, sometimes confound, and sometimes even do both. In ‘The Lobster gets a Grip’ one verse ends:



Would not feel that baleful forefex

A brute display of chelamorphics


I took a trawl through a dictionary of Old English and spent five minutes on Google and I’m still not sure what he means. And while he can really impress with his energy and flamboyance, he can also sound clunky and contrived, with convoluted syntax, antiquated language (“Ods bodikins!”) and an inclusive moral tone that brooks no dissent. In ‘The Trumpet addresses the Limpet’, where he does a sort of compare and contrast job on trumpets and limpets, he amuses in one stanza—


Well-tuned, the trumpet stops its noise.

Alternate fingers soothe the salve

(The artless limpet still employs

A single valve).


—but drags in another:


Each in our shelly wigwam hides,

Fast in our purpose, though contentious;

Daily are nourished by the tides

That duly drench us.


I love the description of a limpet as a “horny nipple”, but I remain sceptical about Fuller’s moral conclusions, which are either so obvious as to be meaningless (“Give thanks to your skin!/ Give thanks to your shell!/ And move heaven and hell/ To remain therein”) or a bit silly (“Your karma’s incomplete/ Until you’ve sat in golden Brussels/ and eaten moules et frites”). And what’s with all those exclamation marks?!


Fuller’s poetry comes from a different time. I luxuriate in his wordplay, marvel at his rhymes and admire his sheer audacity. But I like poetry to try to do something more than dazzle. It’s a bit clever-clever for me, and it has no softness, no uncertainty. Fuller is just too sure.