31 May 2017

Review: Andy Brown's 'Watersong'

The title of Andy Brown’s new chapbook from Shearsman might suggest a lyric rurality, but this collection takes as its subject matter something rarely treated in either poetry or song and sets it firmly in the urban.  Brown’s topic is disease:  disease caused by water contaminated by human faeces – not quite what the reader might have expected from the title.

The collection falls into two parts.  The longer, first section, is a sequence of untitled poems grouped together as ‘Watersong’, and deals with the Exeter cholera epidemic of 1832, which killed over 400 people. This is followed by a short set of poems which address the issues of water and disease in the twenty-first century.

The ‘Watersong’ sequence is full of the grisly detail of the realities of cholera, much of it employing a lexis and register which gives an impression that some of the words might be incorporations from original texts.  We are given lists of fines for keeping insanitary conditions:

The Widow Barrier, for a nucence by keeping a mound
of filth and nastiness beneath her court, amerced 5l.8s…

lists of deaths

On July 24th, at Bury Lane –
the wife of a journeyman cordwainer.
Cholera 3 days…

and lists of symptoms

Skin cold and clammy. Cramps, emaciation.
Abnormal smell. Intelligence entire.
Vomiting and purging now profuse.
Jactition. Diarrhoea.

and we are given stories. The subject of these poems is not just cholera – it is people. So we hear of the grave digger who was attacked for carrying a coffin ‘underhand’, and the surgeon who before sewing up a dissected body ‘strokes the black heart’.

The poems in the sequence have no titles – they flow into each other in a way that creates a sense of fever and unreality in the reader –  yet even as they do this,  the poems are also formally distinct. These are poems that fall (sometimes uneasily) into the varied form of song. They use songlike features such as refrain (‘Sing: Water from the wealthy, private well…’) and chant  (‘’Plague. Plague. Plague. Plague…’).

Other poems utilise poetic forms which have their roots in song. ‘In Bury Fields’, for example,  is a rondeau  which closely follows and interacts with the form and structure of John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’. Most noticeably, six of the thirteen poems in the main sequence,  including many of the list-poems,  are fourteen-liners,  each structured in such a way as to invite the reader to see them through the lens of ‘sonnet’ (a term which, of course, has its derivation in the Italian ‘little song’). 

The subject matter of these sonnets is, however, far removed from the form’s traditional themes. This tension between form and  subject is both witty and disturbing, as is the uncertainty engendered in the reader as to whether these texts are ‘found’ or imagined.  One sonnet is a list of public orders, while several are a series of medical notes:

20th. 10. A.M. fiat pilula
quarta quaque hora sumenda:
Cupri Sulphatis, gr. ¼
Pulveris Opii, gr. ¼

The final four poems of the collection, the poems that deal with contemporary cholera deaths and the present-day attempts to address the problem of contaminated water, have titles. But they are titles which reflect the continuing problem of naming, and the way in which this results in an inability to address the central issue. In ‘The Unnameable Taxonomy’, we are given another list – this time, two pages of jauntily rhyming euphemisms:

...Room 101, or Number Two.
Auditing Assets, Doing the Do,
Taking Some Weight Off Your Troubled Mind,
Seeing How Things Turn out Behind…

In the final, unrhymed sonnet of the pamphlet, ‘The Flying Toilets of Kibera’, Brown moves the form forward into something more lyrical, and something that more closely relates to the sonnet as an image-led  structured argument:  ‘Because the politicians can’t discuss/ toilets for fear of breaking taboo…’ children such as ‘Kanja (Sanskrit, ‘water born’)’ and ‘Nafula (African, ‘born in the rain’) have to get rid of their faeces into the reservoir from which they drink. Their names are of the beauty of water, but their deaths are waiting in its contamination.

The underlying message, made explicit in these final poems of the collection, is that because society still shies away from talking about ‘answer[ing] nature’s call’, people are still, nearly two hundred years after the Exeter epidemic, dying of cholera.  Andy Brown, however,  is not shying away, he’s ‘singing’ about it. This is an intelligent and witty collection, which throws the reader into the gruesome details of an historic tragedy, while at the same time addressing an important contemporary issue. 

Watersong, Andy Brown
Shearsman, 2015

Review first published at Canto Poetry

22 April 2017

The Torrey Canyon and Jos Smith's A Plume of Smoke

Photo: www.shipwrecklog.com

Radio 4's excellent poetry programme The Echo Chamber, hosted by Paul Farley, recently examined poetry's responses to the Torrey Canyon disaster. One of the poets featured was Jos Smith. A while back, I reviewed his pamphlet A Plume a Smoke and though I'd share it again here

In 1967, when the Torrey Canyon ran into rocks between the Isles of Scilly and Lands End and spilled over 100,000 tonnes of oil into the sea,  I was four years old, a small child living in Cornwall. I don’t remember the disaster itself, but I do remember people talking about it. And I remember how even years later, clumps of oil, looking like black rubbery pebbles, could be found washed up on our favourite beaches. So I was very interested to read Jos Smith’s pamphlet, ‘A Plume of Smoke’, which draws on oral history accounts of the disaster.

The collection starts with poems rooted in the character of the Cornish coast and waters.  ‘Remembrance I’ uses the patterns of Biblical  language to depict the power of the sea and its relationship to the people of ‘this  place of saints and graves and mines,/ of harbour bells and broken-winged gulls’ who work on it:

The water giveth and the water taketh away.
Of the thirty-one lost out of Fowey last year,
wheeled into silence by the clock of the tides,
none survived.

Here, the people are vulnerable, and the sea is powerful. The environment Jos Smith is writing about is an entity in its own right, something huge and awesome. In ‘Trawler’, we hear that

Some nights there’s the feeling of stalking a god,
diesel rattling over the waves towards a presence…

… it hangs like a thought in the gulf stream,
blowing in and out of the dark: animal,
theological, cold.

One of the strengths of this collection is the way it realises landscape as a living thing. ‘Herbivore’, a fabulous poem, rich with sounds and images, describes Cornwall’s coast as ‘one long animal/ laid down in the slopes of cove and cliff,/ bristling with sea life like nerves in the skin…’. Everything that the coastline consists of is part of the one entity:

An animal drifting in and out of view,
breathing and sleeping, sniffing and eating,
grazing the outer edge of a volatile world.

The environment is overwhelmed by a dark, unnatural force, which is in turn, given the characteristics of a living entity. In ‘The Smell was the First Thing’,  

The weight leaned in and belittled you.
Every part of it found you out…
intimate long before
any kind of explanation

This, and many other images will stay with me a very long time: the slick as a ‘black rind on the water still as leather’; children trying to stop seabirds landing from in the oil, shouting from the beach ‘“Don’t land! Don’t land! Don’t land!”’; the flaming slick ‘Primal,/ like land forming where there was no land.’

These are poems filled, as one might expect,  with voices : the voices of sailors, of the Cornish people, of the workers brought in to try and contain the disaster. But this is a collection which also deals with memory. The 30,000 tonnes of oil that were pumped into a quarry in Guernsey in an attempt to save the coastline keeps bubbling up, despite efforts to process it, like memory itself:

A memory that we have been ill-equipped to meet
with anything but indefatigable helplessness
sleeping digester of unliftable wings,
you have been on the coastal edge of all our thoughts.

The two poems entitled ‘Remembrance’ use the language of ritual to suggest a way of dealing with these memories.  The dead are remembered and in the living, some kind of healing begins to take place. In the last poem, ‘Afterwards’, there is a quiet hope, but it acknowledges that a price will be paid:

            All that repairs, repairs quietly.
All that heals, heals in silence.

The wet head of something will rise from the pools,
dripping and lonely and not what it was.

‘A Plume of Smoke’  is itself a vehicle for remembering.

The Echo Chamber's programme about the Torrey Canyon is available to listen online until 14 May 2017.

A Plume of Smoke is available to purchase from Maquette Press

21 April 2017

On a Roll and On the Buses!

At the beginning of the year I decided that, instead of submitting to magazines, I'd enter a few poetry competitions. I've never really got into the competition thing, but I have some friends whose names seem to pop up on every shortlist and winners' list, and I thought I'd have a go.

I spent several weeks agonising over which poems to send where, reordering words, fiddling with commas, changing titles and changing them back again, and eventually sent off entries to five competitions. And it seems it was worth it, as I'm really chuffed to discover I have won or been placed in three!

My poem 'Dead Things I Have Seen While Walking' was placed joint fourth in the Kent and Sussex Open Poetry Competition, judged by Catherine Smith. The winner was Janet Sutherland, with her amazing poem 'Braided Wire'.  You can read all the winning entries, and the adjudication report, on the Kent and Sussex website, and I am very proud to be placed among such a fabulous group of poems.

'My Glass Father' was placed third in The Plough Prize, judged by Philip Gross. First prize was won by Vicki Morley, and second prize by Millie Guille - two fantastic poems. Once again, I am honoured to be placed in the company of such great work!

And in the Guernsey Literary Festival's Open Poetry Competition, judged by Gwyneth Lewis, my poem 'Demeter's Lament' won first prize, with 'Monsoon' coming joint third, and 'The Cliff' coming fourth. Second prize was won by Gabriel Griffin, and the other third prize by Fiona Ritchie Walker. All the winning poems in this competition will be featured on Guernsey's buses and at the airport, so I am absolutely delighted!

Many thanks to the judges Catherine Smith, Philip Gross and Gwyneth Lewis, and to the competition organisers.

I guess after this flurry of excitement I'd better get back to working on the new collection and the MA!

7 March 2017

On Sabbatical

Fractal Stanzas is on sabbatical at the moment. But I'll be back!

29 September 2016

Poem: The Cliff

The Cliff
(after Anselm Kiefer)

I make a lexicon       of things that can be        white

         linen             lace        sea foam           face

but these     small dresses      nightshirts   doll-sized robes
       are spattered               grey     and        maculate

stone ghosts of birds            snagged       on a wall of ash

I wonder                 how they           were stitched

smock       shirr         pick         cross               feather

        but it’s                   impossible             to tell

their seams           have rotted               in the spray

I think      how they once were cut     from patterns

        facing    yoke    placket     pocket        welt

but the waves   have flung      this flock of empty children
         against                           a squalling bluff     

all memory of making                           has been lost

Above the cliff  the sky            is cracked like mud

I make a lexicon of things     that are        unravelled


Sally Douglas

'The Cliff' was a prizewinner in the 2015 Exeter Poetry Festival Competition, and was originally published in the Festival pamphlet, Threads.

9 June 2016

Nana on a Dolphin and other poems...

I'm delighted to have three poems featured at Exeter University's poetry journal, Canto. One is a response to Niki de St Phalle's wonderful 'Nana on a Dolphin'; one has its roots in Russia, and another was described on Twitter by WN Herbert as 'a fine elegiac poem about eyebrows'. (Thank you!) You can now read the poems here.

To whet the appetite, here are a couple of related images:

Grinling Gibbons Hampton Court.JPG
A carving by Grinling Gibbons

By Camster2 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6521009

Nana On A Dolphin.jpg
Nana on a Dolphin, by Niki de St Phalle

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30813065

17 May 2016

'Writings on the Wall' Reblogged

I've been thinking a lot about boundaries and borders recently - if you see any news from Europe or the US, and many other places, it's a recurring theme.

I wrote this piece a few years ago. It was Autumn then, not early summer as it is now, but the walls still stand, and walls are still being built. More than ever, I feel that we should really think hard about why we build walls, and whether all of them are really necessary.

Robert Frost and the Berlin Wall

This time of year, when all the green stuff is beginning to die back, the bones of the countryside start to become more visible. Here in Devon, the networks of hedgerows and dry stone walls are suddenly foregrounded; their structure and relationship to the land revealed now that the lushness of summer is receding. They seem organic, these boundaries, part of the nature of things, since many of them have been in place for hundreds of years or more, but of course they are all man-made and need to be maintained.

In Robert Frost’s great poem ‘Mending Wall’ two neighbouring farmers walk the length of the dry stone wall which separates their properties, each on his own side, repairing the holes after the winter weather, making the boundary between them once more complete. ‘Something there is that does not love a wall’, muses Frost’s speaker, pondering the damage that occurs when no one is there to see. But he still goes though the spring ritual of mending: one day a year to ‘set the wall between us once again’. 'Just another kind of outdoor game,' he says.

Dry stone wall in the yorkshire dales detail

This particular wall serves no useful purpose as far as the speaker can see, since all it does is separate one kind of tree from another, and as he says ‘My apple trees will never get across/ and eat the cones under his pines…’. His neighbour sees things differently: insists, as his father did before him, that ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, and as readers we may smile at this old cliche, this unsophisticated parochialism. But then we read Frost's description of him picking up the fallen stones ready to put them back in place and mend the wall:        
...I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed
and we realise that to the neighbour this is something far deeper and darker, more primeval, than just a game.

There’s something very ancient in this need for boundaries, for marking one’s territory. History is criss-crossed by the bones of boundaries: Bronze Age field systems on Dartmoor, castle walls, city walls, Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China. Frost’s wall, like all these walls, is a social and psychological construct as well as a physical one: to the neighbour it is a representation of ownership, and of tradition, of something which must remain fixed. For Frost as poet, it seems to represent the barrier between two people’s points of view.

Point of view about boundaries and territory is addressed in another Frost poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.The poem starts
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
The speaker is riding through some woods which are not his, but the trespass seems to be implied not in the passing through, but in the stopping and looking. Perhaps taking pleasure from something that is not yours is a crime, even if by doing so you hurt no-one? Certainly Frost seems to feel that his speaker has crossed some kind of moral boundary. ‘He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods…’ has a very different implication from a possible alternative that Frost didn’t use: ‘He will not mind me…’. So even without walls, the social boundaries of territory exist.

In English, the word ‘wall’ is a kind of catch-all. We have to use the same word, whether we mean the internal vertical surfaces of a room, or an exterior dividing agent. German is kinder, and allows speakers to distinguish between an internal wall (Wand) and an external one (Mauer). The most famous German wall is of course the Berlin Wall, a barrier between two diametrically opposed points of view – those of Communism and of Capitalism.

The division of East and West Berlin took physical form on the night of 12th August 1961, when East German troops and workers tore up the streets adjacent to the border, and laid barbed wire and fences to prevent anyone crossing. The first bits of actual wall (concrete and blocks) were laid by August 17th, and soon there was a wall along the whole border. In 1975, however, the East German border troops started building a new type of wall along the border: the Grenzmauer 75. This was made from 45,000 sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6m high and 1.2m wide. It was painted a bright, inviting white. Graffiti was of course forbidden in East Germany, but by the beginning of the eighties, artists had decided that the Western face of the wall was a massive canvas waiting to be filled. Many artists, known, unknown, or anonymous, painted on the wall. Sometimes a painting was only there a day before it was painted over. Anyone could paint. The wall, a symbol of oppression, became a place of expression – but only to those on one side. The Western side was riotous with colour, the Eastern side plain and greying.


In the Bible, (Daniel 5: 1-31) the ‘writing on the wall’ foretold the demise of the Babylonian Empire. While it would be pushing it rather to pretend that this is directly analogous with the Berlin Wall and its graffiti art, given the events of 1989 and after it’s quite a pleasing idea to prop, rather like some flimsy but decorative ladder, up against it.

More than twenty years after Reunification, few parts of the Wall remain, although on those stretches that do, the Eastern face is now covered with graffiti too. Pieces of the fallen Wall have made their way all over the world and can be found displayed in embassies, parks, schools, hotels and museums. But there is still a vestigial wall, albeit invisible. Germans talk about the ‘Mauer im Kopf’: the wall in the head. (Incidentally, it’s interesting how the spatial specificity the German noun – its externality – makes its paradoxical placing within an internal space – the head – so much more striking.)  Polls have indicated that some Germans regret Reunification, and feel that the erosion of cultural differences between the East and West is a negative thing. In other words, they wish the Wall was still there.

Which brings us back to Robert Frost’s neighbour, who wanted the boundaries kept solid, visible, unbroken. Knowing that the boundary was there in abstract was not enough. To him, the wall in the head needed be made manifest by the wall on the land, even though to Frost’s more pragmatic persona, there seemed no point at all.

So, what is the 'something' that makes the gaps, the something that doesn't like a wall? The something that
…sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
It’s frost.

Image Credits
Image 1, Drystone wall:  Lupin at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2, Berlin Wall: Noir at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons