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Refusing to be falsely happy: six contemporary poetry books

10 August 2018

Martyn Halsall reviews contemporary poetry that reflects on faith

See gallery for covers

See gallery for covers

WHEN prophecy appears endangered by “strategy”, and inquiry by “flourishing”, it is poets like these who outline more searching agendas. Intriguing cross-currents flow among these varied collections, through shared people and places, overlapping concerns, and spiritual explorations.

Rupert Loydell, artist, and author or editor of 23 books since 2003, mixes a rich palette of colour theory and metaphysics in his considerations of the annunciation, in Dear Mary. In poems ranging from six words to 192 lines, he leafs through Marian possibilities and potential. Bold lights illuminate his findings. Classical artistic reference are re-translated through post-modern filters. He encourages all the senses: “Memory makes a noise/ like paint peeling”, and makes the static mobile: “We are hoping to take the room on tour, might one day learn to swim in the presence of the Other”.

Tensions intrude, disturbing his desire for stillness, but these also make Marian considerations contemporary; background traffic, or thoughts on UFOs, or “a folding set of postcards”. Other painters, from medieval masters to Francis Bacon, make guest appearances, and the title poem is a collage of lines from 11 rock-music sources, “and other texts”. Loydell, an acute observer and adept interpreter, is always open to fluency and nuance in these rewarding poems.

Low shadows mould many of R. V. Bailey’s poems into remembrance or requiem, often with the ironic understatement of her collection’s title A Scrappy Little Harvest. “It is the nature of faith to be/ dark. Whose place is not fireside/ but promontory at night by winter sea” (“Dark”). She writes, clear-eyed and with gratitude, recalling relations, and precious memories; but also with the mischief and delight in the life which she shared with her late partner, the poet U. A. Fanthorpe. “Morning Prayer C21” interposes lines from Anglican liturgy with infuriating automated call-centre responses. “Song at Harvest Time” updates the Battle of Towton (1461) to contemporary conflict in this modest and yet magisterial collection.

Like U. A. Fanthorpe and R. V. Bailey, Robert Maxwell is a Quaker, and dedicated his collection Naming the Animals to them. His aim is to keep alive Bible stories that are in danger of being forgotten in our secularised society.

His poems reflect 60 years of writing since he won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford, but his later work appears flatter, and prosaic, compared with his youthful energy and colour. More pertinent are questions that he raises from the animals’ stories that he relates, and there is a faithfulness within the question marks.

© judith and favell maxwellOne of the illustrations by Judith and Favell Maxwell which accompany Robert Maxwell’s poems in Naming the Animals. This is for the poem “The Ravens & Elijah”

A gritty realism characterises work by Jacci Bulman in A Whole Day Through From Waking; she excels at captivating titles. She challenges polite conventions and restrictive piety, and longs to liberate, whether “A Victorian nightgown” hung in an antiques shop or, in “Jesus on the wall”: “watch him have a runabout/ before they put him back”. Her compassionate work ranges widely, from “An Accrington Education” to orphans in Vietnam. She writes of love that can be tender or raw, and is as adept at wonder in the ordinary as in the “high art” of a college chapel, or official gallery. Of a postcard of Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World: “I look at him when I need more than a guide.”

David Grieve confronts the darkness of depression, which invalided him out of the Anglican priesthood, aged 37, in 1989, with defiant faith in Hope in Dark Places. He does not allow night to defeat art, opening his collection with “Anagrams”: “When I am scared, O Lord,/ you tell me I am sacred”. He writes “poetry as both therapy and vocation”, and that, like Jacci Bulman’s work, traces grace in the dust of the ordinary: “I dare, as a Christian, to be depressed” (“Comfort”). His faith reaches beyond false optimism: “I know I go on about it/ but I refuse to be falsely happy,/ to connive, to be clappy,/ when all the time life is hell”.

Careful reading (Philip Larkin, Exodus, the Psalms) and looking — a pietà in Durham Cathedral — inform Grieve’s work, alongside the domestic. Humour energises word-play, as when both he and the cat have “lost our marbles” under the sofa, and he remembers “God is good at shifting furniture.” Like the best hymn-writing, this is poetry that does not disown either the craft of its making or the faith that ultimately informs it, and keeps it buoyant.

Hilary Smith’s Grief’s Shadowed Path tracks her journey of mourning after the death of her father, Joe, aged 81. Her poems, quiet and direct, are, however, somewhat waterlogged by the pages of prose — Acknowledgement, Foreword, Introduction, Postscript, About the Author — which threaten to stifle them. This is poetry for the prose reader; helpful and consolatory, although, perhaps understandably, short on flight and music.

In her tenth collection, In the Image, Alwyn Marriage re-inserts an erotic charge often denied to saintly medieval women, in eight studies. In the longest, Clare of Assisi attempts to rationalise her call to chastity against her loss of sexual identity, through her devotion to St Francis, and his infectious faith. Other subjects include Lady Godiva, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe, and each intrigues by injecting an imaginative warm blood transfusion into holy biography.

Dr Halsall is a former Poet-in-Residence at Carlisle Cathedral.

Dear Mary
Rupert M. Loydell
Shearsman Books £9.95
Church Times Bookshop £8.95

A Scrappy Little Harvest
R. V. Bailey
Indigo Dreams Publishing £8.99

Naming the Animals and Other Poems
Robert Maxwell
£10 (plus £2.50 p&p)
(copies available from the author at Pitt Court Manor, North Nibley, Dursley GL11 6EL)

A Whole Day Through From Waking
Jacci Bulman
Cinnamon Press £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

Hope in Dark Places
David Grieve
Sacristy Press £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

Grief’s Shadowed Path
Hilary Smith
EV Books £12
Available from amazon.co.uk

In the Image: Portraits of mediaeval women
Alwyn Marriage
Indigo Dreams Publishing £6
Church Times Bookshop £5.40

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