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The inner weather    

22 July 2016

Fraser Steel considers contemporary and 20th-century poetry

dora kazmierak

“Seated on her tattered throne”: the photograph accompanying “Not Quite a Gardening Pair” in A Sunny Saturday Kicks Off, a limited-edition collection of a dozen poems by Louis Hemmings, with photos by Dora Kazmierak (£11, including postage, from the author, Avonbeg, Newtownpark Avenue, Blackrock, Dublin, Ireland). It includes “I’m a Pussy-footing Protestant”, a satirical poem about the Church of Ireland, “which seems to have forgotten biblical foundations”, the author says

“Seated on her tattered throne”: the photograph accompanying “Not Quite a Gardening Pair” in A Sunny Saturday Kicks Off, a lim...

Martyn Halsall
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90


The Paper Sky
El Gruer
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90


Unquiet Vigil
Paul Quenon
Paraclete Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70


The Blind Man with the Lamp
Tasos Leivaditis
Denise Harvey Publisher £8.90
Church Times Bookshop £8.01



WHAT makes people buy poetry books remains something of a mystery (as any poetry publisher will confirm). To the extent that interest in the subject-matter of the poems comes into it, all these collections contain something likely to appeal to readers of the Church Times — though their appeal to those interested in poetry as art and craft is more variable.

Sanctuary is the product of Martyn Halsall’s year as Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral. Taken together, the poems are an atmospheric evocation of the kind of place where (as Larkin put it) “all our compulsions meet, Are recognised and robed as destinies”. Taken individually, one or two convey a sense of being part of a project, owing more to ingenuity than to inspiration, but there are few that don’t yield a worthwhile insight or observation, and none where the poet’s feel for rhythm and cadence fails him.

I can’t say the same for the versification in The Paper Sky, the first collection of El Gruer, whose background in performance poetry often leads to effects that may work with audiences but look crude on the page (it may also account for her tendency to explain her metaphors rather than let them do their own work). But her subject-matter is never far from the nerve of human vulnerability and loss, infused with a sense of what those may open on to: as she said in a 2012 interview, “I believe in the power of brokenness. When we cry out, God meets us.”

We’re in more explicitly religious territory with Unquiet Vigil, Paul Quenon’s new and selected poems. He has been a member of the Trappist order for more than half a century, and his reflections must be of interest to those curious about monastic life. Like those of his novice-master Thomas Merton, his poems do convey a sense of the inner weather of a contemplative vocation. But those expecting a latter-day St John of the Cross will be disappointed: the turn of mind that the poems reveal is more often whimsical than profound.

Surprisingly, it’s a former member of the Communist resistance in wartime Greece who comes closer to St John’s paradoxical profundities. If one had to invent a little-known contemporary of Seferis, Ritsos, and Elytis, one would probably come up with something very like Tasos Leivaditis (1922-88), though it would be difficult to invent anything so singular as the prose-poems in The Blind Man with the Lamp, which speak of his experience of God with a directness saved from portentousness by a vein of levity. This is the first of his collections to be published in English, and I hope it won’t be the last.


Fraser Steel is Head of the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit.

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