Poetry round-up: Stolen moments and brave imaginings

Collections from John Fitzgerald, Amanda Bell, Hannah Lowe and Togara Muzanenhamo

John Fitzgerald's The Time Being (Gallery, 60pp, €11.95) opens, strikingly, with destruction, "the smoky/ up-throttling roar" of a chainsaw in a boy's hand. "It was like cutting into pure fear/ to sunder it." Throughout this confident, graceful and often dark collection, Fitzgerald attends to the fear of historical continuance. The farmer, rather than tasked solely with the up-keep of tradition, is figured as a corrector, an atoner, determined "to make good the past".

It is rare to come across a debut from a poet whose voice is so assured and unfaltering. These lyrics are steeped in tradition, echoing Edward Thomas in places, and there are thrilling glints of a brave imagination: a cat’s tongue, in one poem, is “genital pink”.

Occasionally, one feels that the acuteness and precision of Fitzgerald’s work could be deepened by digging into more vulnerable emotional territory, by risking more. Indeed, Fitzgerald achieves this in many places. The best poem in the collection, Spindle, digs into an embittered, striking anger. Like the opening poem, First Cut, it carries all the richness of Fitzgerald’s descriptive powers and enlists them into a thrillingly dark tale of retribution.

In Spindle, the speaker turns against their “ignorant father” to “end his tenure”, to put an end to the influence of an unnamed injustice.


Each September I scan the hedgerows for your gaudy lanterns
lighting up the green-dark shade:
pink biretta, plump pods, daring orange aril.
But I never find them

The quality of the language carries a sense of biting dark, and spite: the tree is both “gaudy” and looked-for, the descriptions of its flowers both botanical and figurative (as in the “pink biretta”, a three-pointed cap once worn by Catholic clergy). It is a stunning and grisly tale, with Fitzgerald leading us to the “Lair of the worse-than-useless,/ now skewered in his grave, pig-smelling flesh rotted/ to bone”, and in the end lighting a purging fire.

Amanda Bell's new collection Riptide (Doire Press, 79pp, €10) begins with poems addressing the ocean. In Sea, My Love, the speaker "slide[s] into your icy embrace/ hissing like coal". In Bedtime Story, cousins are rescued from the water, as the "Perseids flash like searchlights" across it.

From this first aquatic touchstone, however, the poems that follow spread through association and counterpoint, where the riptide of the title comes to encompass time, those who are taken away by it, those who are unmoored and those left behind.

The most interesting aspect of this collection is Bell’s skilful rendering of haibun, a Japanese form which combines haiku and prose poetry in the space of a single poem. The effect, in Riptide, is of crystalline interludes between more diaristic descriptions and travelogues.

Occasionally Bell uses the haiku to enact a volta in the poems, using haibun to create a sting in the tail. Wintering, an elegy, does this particularly well. After walking through woods, marking out trees for felling, the speaker bends to dig some ground. The poem turns sharply:

my friend is dead –
how can I plant crocus bulbs
in this shallow soil?

Likewise, in perhaps the collection’s best poem, Casings, the effect is musical and haunting:

Each time I climb the dusty attic stairs to get rid of it, I remember why the box is there. Inside, wrapped in tissue sheets like layers of skin, baby-clothes in whose cool folds I can still feel the weight of warm wrestling bodies. And no matter how hard I hold them to me, they are empty.

spring cleaning –
silver sheaths of house moths
behind the bed

Bell works best in the restraints of a tighter form (Unsex me now is another strong example of this), but there is much to be said for the effect creating by these lulls and peaks. The looser expanse of prose is punctuated by haiku, like beads on a necklace. Moving and diverse in its range, Riptide is a sensuous and tender book.

Hannah Lowe's The Kids (Bloodaxe, 80pp, £10.99) combines formal skill with a rare bravery, and bears a lightness of touch that is often virtuosic. This book of sonnets is deeply enjoyable to read, and has echoes of Tony Harrison's School of Eloquence sequence in its combination of the comedic and the gut-punch.

Lowe is attuned to changing language, and to the politics of class and race and their intersections with education and the educator. The classroom channels all the vibrant and violent aspects of English culture, and Lowe’s skill is to hold both the personal and the political in balance.

The reader can feel the teacher being unsettled and challenged, and the collection turns inwards to the experience of being taught, and outwards to the ways in which children respond to social unrest and government directives. The poems Richochet and British-Born trace insidious developments: “And suddenly, new language – ‘British-born’ –/ for kids who grew up on terraces in Leeds/ or tower blocks in Bow”.

The sequencing of the sonnets is brilliant, so that the book unfolds and deepens with every new page. Occasionally, the volta enacts a loop of time, so the teacher forced into confrontation with a student is reminded of “the way that years before/ I’d fought Lyn Johnson for a soldering iron/ in Physics”.

One particularly brave poem recalls Notes on a Scandal, a 2006 film staring Cate Blanchett as a teacher who has an affair with a schoolboy. The poem, simply titled Boy, expands a momentary glance between the teacher and the ex-pupil, seven years after he has left school, and is both gracious and unsettling..

The Kids is full of interruptions, stolen moments and confrontations, and the power of Lowe’s use of the sonnet feels akin to controlling a classroom – the form acts to hold and strain against the blustering energy of the students and the teacher. The Kids is an honest and intelligent book.

Rather than working in a contained space, Togara Muzanenhamo's Virga (Carcanet, 99pp, £10.99) is expansive. The title refers to a meteorological phenomenon in which a column of rain or snow is seen falling but never reaching the earth, and the collection itself is connected by the sky. Charting a brilliant range of events across the 20th century, Muzanenhamo wears his erudition and research with ease, finding the cracks of light in historical documents and prising them open.

Swakopmund, the long opening poem, is a haunting sea voyage with echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Wreck of the Deutschland and Hayden’s Middle Passage:

The lantern's light etches and enlarges the figures on a thick screen of mist.
Each silhouette becoming flesh. Each figure gaunt and naked as the hour itself.

Eight shackled men. […]
The stink of iron on wounds green with the ache of salt.
The last of the men – a shackled ghost.

There is an energetic tightness to Muzanenhamo’s verse that can be turned to both the disturbing and the musical. He is always conscious of the revelatory capacity of syntactical compactness, creating a poetry that is both rooted in the earth and invested in the possibility of metaphysics. At his best, he delivers both the “beautiful staves of grief” and the “immortal flick of wind”, a poetry like a “Shadow tattooed on air –/ Translated through blood.”