Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Archway Sonnets, Kate Bingham

New Walk Editions, 2020    £5.00

Quietly noteworthy

This is a pamphlet of quiet noticing, starting with a poem noticing what’s been missed:

Over, the irises I must have passed
almost every day of their flowering


What was I thinking? How could I have missed
that gorgeous complicated showy wow

And it took me, as a reader, quite a while to notice to that all these sonnets follow the same rhyme scheme (again, quieter than the usual, I think, with a delayed soft echo – ABCD ABCD ABCD EE).

They’re all set in the same world of ‘the even grey this bit of London’, the tube, puddles, fruit flies. They all seem to feature the same laconic, self-deprecating narrator. I like the way the noticing can also be direct, the gaze raised to note the social reality of the area (‘we know the council isn’t rich’, a beggar on the tube) and self-aware (‘sometimes I don’t do / what I should do, / I look and look away’).  

The jacket is white with a detailed design in grey, showing lattice work and flowers and buildings, with a blurred impression of movement. The author's name and title are in the top quarter, centred, in bright green caps, author name first. All text is the same size..The form works excellently for small self-contained metaphors and reflections, with the consistency of the setting (several poems mention the years coming round again) allowing some of the poems to reach into big subjects without disturbing the overall tone. A sonnet considering being woken by the bathroom fan is one of my favourites: moving from its sound to imagining death as ‘machines rattling softly as they scan, / memory, sight, taste, hearing gone’, a ‘white noise I know I know // from somewhere, dust that rises as it falls / like breath behind the plaster in the walls.’

It’s typical of the un-showiness of the pamphlet that it doesn’t end with the companion poem to the irises, but I can’t resist finishing with ‘the garden roses / no one seems to remember planting’, and the poem’s Larkinesque almost-recognition ‘as if a rose could put the world to rights’ (my italics). Of course it can’t, but I like the way this poem has it both ways, ending with the rose’s ‘unfolding head [that] keep[s] mine together’ and recognising ‘All I have to do is show I notice’.

Ramona Herdman

Ways in

These Archway Sonnets are, themselves, rather like archways. Each untitled poem’s opening is intriguing and welcoming: a good combination. They draw me in.

The first sonnet, on page 5 — with its critical comma after that ‘Over’ (which of course changes everything) — sets the pace, a pace which is all about attention to detail:

Over, the irises I must have passed
almost every day of their flowering

Many don’t give their subject away in the first few lines. Page 6, for instance, starts:

Not wet or warm or even very clean,
all it can do is flop together, arms
and legs tied-up, like something glad to be still

It’s a riddle — like the ‘it’ it describes. I am pulled in.

Others are seemingly more direct immediately — with their lists of nouns: ‘A mattress, a fridge, a cardboard pizza box’, starts page 8. We know just where we are — and that’s equally compelling and refreshing. (I’m also further drawn as I happened to live at one time in Archway.) Here’s the start of page 16:

A row of ground-floor flats with gardens not
worth bothering with — room for a couple of chairs,
a barbecue, a bike, a pile of bricks

Or how about this, on page 26. It’s beautifully direct:

Someone sat next to me at Leicester Square —
jeans, a canvas jacket with a zip
with brave new world embossed on its brown tag
and brave new world, again, along the seam

That repetition really works, for me. I read the lettering along the seam.

Here, to close, are two of my favourite openings. This, on page 28:

I love the even grey this bit of London
at this time of year this time of day
agrees to go along with

And finally, from page 9, a picture I know I won’t forget:

Someone spilled a litre of paint at the bus stop,
scraped what they could and hopped on a 43

This could almost have been me. I smile, and definitely read on...

Charlotte Gann

A mesh of mess and neatness

This poet is a master of formal craft. She gifts us a sequence of twenty-five fine untitled sonnets all about this workaday area of North London — down at the bottom of the hill from the glamour of Highgate. The enclosure of the form almost mirrors the physicality of Archway — a geographical hub that holds the tube station for the surrounding areas and is somewhere Londoners often just pass through. This ‘hub’ nature is beautifully captured by the sonnet on page 9, about a spilt litre of paint at a bus stop:

and flattening out in every direction slowly
like a concrete dust sheet crossed with streaks,
a random sample of our many footsteps

The detail of the everyday is captured in close detail: it reminded me of a John Clare poem. The formal nature of the work contrasts pleasingly with its subjects and colloquial, accessible language. The poems cover everything from fly tipping to laundry, music practice to puddles. Even the London habit of leaving unwanted things out for others is captured beautifully, on page 18:

cheap willow-pattern rip-offs left to take
on someone’s mossy low front-garden wall
litter the pavement, now, in shards of blue.

The sound of her automatic bathroom fan captures the poet’s imagination enough to produce a sonnet that manages to travel — taking in, on its way, bad dreams and death. ‘A little motor drives the bathroom fan’, starts this poem on page 24; and it concludes:

From somewhere, dust that rises as it falls
like breath behind the plaster in the walls.

And the sound of a violin player doing her Brahms practice (on page 19) induces both recollection of family life with younger children, and a reminder of the diverse soundscape of London life:

impatient for her practice to begin,
fifths on open strings beside the window
then straight into it over a neighbour’s reggae,
Beethoven and Brahms all afternoon

This is a diverse collection of beautiful urban observations all perfectly packaged in sonnet form: an absorbing sequence.

Jane Thomas

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