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Fragments and recapitulation

23 August 2013

Martyn Halsall reads recent collections by contemporary poets


Michael Symmons Roberts
Cape Poetry £12
Church Times Bookshop £10.80 (use code CT559 )

Tiger Facing the Mist
Pauline Stainer
Bloodaxe £8.95
Church Times Bookshop £8.05 (use code CT559 )

The Music of the Ocean
David Hodges
The Abbey, Caldey Island £7.50
(plus £1 p&p; available from www.caldey-island.co.uk)


The Sunrise Liturgy: A poem sequence
Mia Anderson
Wipf and Stock £11
Church Times Bookshop £9.90 (use code CT559 )

WHENEVER the institutional Church appears to exchange its prophetic potential for wrangling and bureaucracy, it is poets who help us re-engage with God's mystery and creativity. God may remain at the far side of human imagination, but writers such as these encourage exploration; even engagement.

Michael Symmons Roberts begins his collection of 150 poems with the end of the world. You wonder where the other 149 will go. The answer is analysis, intrigue, and eventually partial reconstruction of our current condition: an essentially theological enterprise.

Society's body is opened in public, like Rembrandt's autopsy. Questions are posed to observers: what part do we play in this; what are the responsibilities of the prophetic poet, and the attentive reader? To summon answers Symmons Roberts weaves a tapestry; thoughtful, fluent, and essentially awarding Christian grace.

In his opening poem, "World into Fragments", he moves from the "small breaks" of a sustaining cup; our place in time ("cracked watch face"), and disintegrating shelter ("hairlines in roof tiles"), to a 9/11 collapse where "smoked office towers fold into tobacco heaps." Yet even such disintegration offers potential redemption, a radicalised humanity: "And when it stops, we see for real, as if through mud and spit."

Various preoccupations - night, capitalistic domination, the role of poet as psalmist, and metaphysical expeditions among them - flavour this absorbing collection. Symmons Roberts is also a film-maker, fluent in mingling references to award fresh insights.

John Milton, "Through an open casement in his last hour", hears in both real and prophetic time, "beggars, buskers,/ dog duets", be- sides "car alarms, twenty four hour news/ evacuations, bomb scares, marching troops". In another cultural recasting, Eden becomes "The Original Zoo", the title of three poems; evocative ecological requiems.

Thin borders between fantasy and reality - hotels, funfairs, photo-booths, and karaoke sessions among them - are probed in "hymns" that move between sacred and secular. There are telling details - "sprinklers comb like peacocks on the lawn" ("Desert Hermits") - to illustrate big pictures, as when Columbus chips paint to discover "Beneath the stucco, pomp and limewash, every city has a grey heart."

He completes his monumental collection by reassembling the "fragments" of his opening poem into "a recapitulation of the world we knew", even as observed in the past tense. We may progress ("walk"), prophesy ("witness"), and worship ("give thanks"), but this collection is also a testament to metaphysics under negotiation. Part of its magnificence lies in recognising that reality: expect to see it listed for major poetry prizes.

Pauline Stainer moves towards increasingly Christian considerations in her typically haunting poems; profound in brevity. She packs epics into concise lines, but her work is never hurried or congested. Several poems contain Japanese references, and Stainer writes in a tradition where economy illuminates the universal.

The swallow in "Insight", "passing one of his long tail feathers/ under the Virgin's eyelid/ to remove grit" might be a metaphor for a Stainer poem, with its fleet passage and metaphysical compassion. Birds, animals, and frequent snow feature in several early poems, often in such arresting images as "Birch trees quilled in the lake" ("On Whiteness"). Gradually her concentration edges closer to the Christian tradition.

Mountain-bikers on a ski-lift resemble flyers (angels?) "above the calamitous ground/ where we are not saved". Poems including saints, a church, a wedding or the interaction of Eastern and Western spiritualities lead to "Long Friday", and its


  Crucifixion, a centurion gazing up at the body with its crown of razor wire


transfixed by

that shimmer

in zero sunlight -  ncarnation,

the dove


in the double helix.


David Hodges, a Cistercian monk, shares his faith and surroundings from the Abbey on Caldey Island, off South Wales. Subtle colour and symphonic sound hallmark salt-stained pages, balanced with quiet micro-sermons through which he teaches and encourages.

Some of his writing veers towards the prosaic, and more vivid observations - "boats . . . begin a slow dance on water" - echo the delight of those at compline in Norway seeing suddenly an oil rig towed past "our wall of glass".

Mia Anderson's fourth collection, The Sunrise Liturgy, reads like a hangover from the worst progressive rock lyrics written 40 years ago; meandering, self-indulgent collages; less sunrise than hippy-trippy twilight. The methodology of an actor-turned-shepherd-turned-Canadian priest emerges in "Riverbreath": "you think I'm joking, fanciful? I say it like I see it". I didn't: sorry.

Dr Martyn Halsall is Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral and poetry editor of Third Way.

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