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Six books from contemporary poets

01 June 2018

Martyn Halsall reviews recent reflections from contemporary poets

ENCOURAGING ambition and diversity emerge from these six collections of broadly spiritual poetry, ranging from polemic to narrative, and from righteous anger to crystalline contemplation.

Alan Morrison sets a furious political pace in his eighth collection, Tan Rapture, using the “tan” of official envelopes in ironic conjunction with the “rapture” discerned in New Testament apocalyptic forecasts. This volume is dedicated to “the memories of over 91,000 victims of Tory ‘welfare reform’”, and the title sequence takes particular aim at the former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

The “Red Shelley” of Paul Foot’s radical analysis, the anger of a Tony Harrison, and the dexterity of rap are all discernible in Morrison’s lengthy campaigns. They range from the struggle for health and justice by Victorian match girls, through the sacrifices of the Spanish Civil War, to manifestos challenging Thatcherite capitalism. Each poem ends with three dots, suggesting unfinished business.

Given his blow-torch approach to the Establishment, the Church of England achieves redemption, being commended for the promotion by Archbishops Runcie, Williams, Welby, and Sentamu “of polemical clericalism” that this collection encourages with fluency, wit, and passion.

Pauline Stainer, working “at the margins of the spiritual”, according to John Burnside, could not offer a greater contrast to Morrison’s manifestos, but is equally intense, and rewarding. Her ninth collection, Sleeping Under the Juniper Tree, takes reference from a quotation from the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch.

Stainer’s work is notable for its concentrated brevity, and a deft development of themes, including parenthood, reflections, and illumination, which, like Bach, she discerns “improvising on the metaphysics of radiance”. Her collection is bracketed by poems about prophecy, featuring contrasting birds.

The first re-examines Elijah sleeping under a juniper tree, and being fed by ravens “until that flower in wilderness/ prophecy/ sprang from his throat”. By the end of the collection, in “Prophecy”, Stainer receives that gift when a merlin “flew past so low and close/ its subtle body/ touched me for a moment/ inside the mouth”.

This haunting collection can be read as a series of brief and yet intense meditations, or, equally, as lightning flashes awarding renewed insights into what might appear familiar, or, equally, mysterious. It is as full of intrigue and potential as “the library of water” among its memorable images.

The American poet Abigail Carroll addresses 40 letters to St Francis in A Gathering of Larks, named after the flock that reportedly appeared when Francis died in 1226. Her book, which would provide an excellent resource for retreats or study sessions, helpfully includes prompts for further reflection, and some spiritual exercises. Carroll’s agenda of contemporary Franciscan concerns includes “nature, materialism, simplicity, beauty, brokenness, faith”.

Each poem-letter addresses Francis differently, examining the various parts that he played in contrasting styles, and mingling his historic priorities with contemporary experience. His attempt to end Christian-Islamic conflict becomes also a meditation on current unrest in Gaza, and a broken shower prompts thoughts on baptism. With fluency, music, and wit, Carroll invites readers to re-examine Francis, and his life and teachings, just as she seeks to introduce him to the internet.

Kenneth Steven reaches back a thousand years to revive in refreshing poetry the tragedy of Deidre and Naoise, who took refuge in Argyll after Naoise rescued Deidre from a forced aristocratic marriage. A strange, possibly angelic, betrayal leads them back to Ireland, and death sentences.

Steven tells his interpretation with a poet’s ear for telling phrasing, and a reporter’s eagerness — his father was a journalist — for pace and development. There is also a great sense of place in his epic, and a brooding melancholy threaded through the initial triumph of love. On landing in Scotland:

This is a little kingdom, she said, and he thought
how someone had been there before them, once upon a time.
He said nothing but he knew for sure.

The author of 14 poetry collections, Steven here writes with the music of his mother’s singing of a tale of beauty and loss, ancient and yet resonating among our contemporary uncertainties.

Christopher Southgate distils 30 years of writing, and experiences as “a house-husband, a book-seller, a lay chaplain . . . a teacher of theology and a puzzler-away at God” in his “new and selected poems of the Spirit”. In Rain Falling by the River, five sections include issues of departure, the Bible, and explorations of place, suffering, and “longings and destinations”.

This rich collection mixes the predictable with the less expected, particularly in the strongest poems, about place. So Patmos and Iona stand alongside Ground Zero and Mozambique to open up associated landscapes such as social justice. The officially holy become actively redemptive. Hospital chaplaincy stimulates other searching and contemplative work, while there is an ironic undercurrent, arguing that silence may eventually replace all language.

John Garbutt writes at great length, but with little sense of having much to say, linguistically or philosophically, in his examinations of Predators. This resembles a literary route march through treacle, weighed down with 70 pages of endnotes. There is some energy in his sequence on The Crusades, but at its worst (Glencoe) his work rivals the doggerel of William McGonagall.

Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.


Tan Raptures
Alan Morrison
Smokestack £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

Sleeping Under the Juniper Tree
Pauline Stainer
Bloodaxe Books £9.95
Church Times Bookshop £8.95

A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a modern-day pilgrim
Abigail Carroll
Eerdmans £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

Deidre of the Sorrows
Kenneth Steven
Polygon £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

Rain Falling by the River: New and selected poems of the spirit
Christopher Southgate
Canterbury Press £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

Predators: Reflections on a theme
John Garbutt
St Edmunds Publishing £17.99

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