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Poetry reviews: Like cloud in the making

09 August 2019

Martyn Halsall reviews new publications by contemporary poets

AN EDITOR, some years ago, read a poem about Namibia in Southern Africa, and commented: “I’ve never been to Namibia, but I feel now as if I have.” Many poems in these collections explore the spirituality of place, physical and psychological, though responses are more usually personal rather than prophetically engaging with environmental crisis.

Gillian Allnutt’s spare, elegiac poems are like runes on bone; messages from another world: “in my shoeless fear of the Lord that fire and flet/ unfit for me”. Poems often rooted in the mystical half-light of her native north-east, following pilgrim tracks to Lindisfarne or “the waters of Tyne”, though she also enjoys the Cotswolds. A line might be a single word, a poem a single line, though Allnutt can also gather multiple relationships, gracefully and economically, as in the eight lines of “in a field of oats” where: “the world for all its wild percussive way/ will come upon us wordlessly/ among the rows”.

For all their frequent brevity, there is a satisfying completeness to each poem, like an Amen. The contemporary — war in Syria, computers, radio cricket commentaries — stands alongside ancient histories and geographies, sometimes with a mischievous wink: “Even the police station a cordial Cotswold stone” (“Going to Gloucester”). There is rich thought compressed within these poems, where spirituality is all the more telling for its quiet capacity to surprise: “like cloud in the making” (“Ignominy”).

These are pilgrim poems, light-footed, and yet dedicated to spiritual quest; ambitious in their intensity; profound in their search for grace: “we are bound to one another, God, my own anon/ and of our solitude we are guardian” (“Lindisfarne: The roughs”).

David Grieve follows his courageous collection about Christian faith in depression, Hope in Dark Places, with Love in Thin Places about experiences of chaplaincy at Durham Cathedral. He accompanies some of Allnutt’s footsteps, notably to Lindisfarne, but, for all his 60 years of association with Durham, there seems an insufficient sense of ancient city or iconic cathedral. Grieve writes of place as sanctifying idea, instead of conjuring its physicality. A strong thread of return — “You come here not to get away,/ but to get back” runs through this faithful but not particularly engaging collection, never quite illuminating the author’s intriguing assertion: “Cathedrals are made of stone and elastic.”

David Corfe is also a chaplain-poet in the way in which his observations, over 40 years of writing, link priesthood to pilgrimage, as faith informs and seasons these 70 poems. Corfe’s is redemptive writing, celebrating resilient nature within “our sprawling suburbs”, while also realistic about hospital treatment and approaching death. He remains an ambassador of Christian hope despite global darkness: “Those who work for peace, the blessed,/ carry a lonely cross.”

Hilary Jane Hughes is, her publishers tell us, “an established poet”, though her “musings and reflections” in Gasp! read like the over-written, over-wrought work of an L-plate poet all too eager to use five words when one would do, and to dictate responses. Occasionally, as in some of her poems about “Place”, a telling detail breaks through: “caramel sand” in Thailand, or “a freshly ironed short” glimpsed through downpour, but too many poems collapse under frenetic verbiage and insistent preaching.

Aidan Chafe, a Canadian teacher, writes from dark places in his haunted debut collection Short Histories of Light. Knives, wounds, bruises, and scars injure those close to him, within surroundings of seemingly cultural rather than redemptive Roman Catholicism. Other poems, with acute social observations, record that “whole worlds collide in the cold.” Countryside, illuminated by dark re-readings of children’s stories, is shadowed and persecuted with images of death and violence: rifles, claws, and hunters. God, in “The Gospel According to Uncle Peter”, awarded Chafe’s father just “a whipping and a smile./ The latter, he shoulders/ through life like a cross.” Chafe records a bitter dissection of discipleship.

John Davey raises important questions, such as the omnipotence of God, in the introduction to his “personal prayer through poetry”, but largely fails to pursue them. Rather, he mixes scriptural quotation and well-rehearsed explanation in all too often archaic poetry. “Twixt, whence, ere, nigh” and “naught” obscure his more telling, later poems about knife crime or unemployment, or updated parables, though the greetings-card rhythms and rhyme schemes become wearing.

Toddy Hoare, sculptor, soldier, and priest, also struggles with contemporary construction. Only two poems into Sonnetry, we sprawl over “Their children would their characters form.” Sixty-odd pages, and a few watercolours later, near the Burning Bush: “Moses shoeless stood holy ground/ The burning bush unconsumed found.” This is a collection suspended between embarrassment and caricature.

Lyn McCrave writes gentle, faithful prayer-poems set largely in her native Scotland, seasoned with Celtic spirituality. They represent 50 years of writing, and will provide encouragement and consolation.

Dr Halsall is a poet and journalist.

Gillian Allnutt
Bloodaxe Books £9.95
Church Times Bookshop £8.95

Love in Thin Places: Confessions of a cathedral chaplain
David Grieve
Sacristy Press £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

More From My Knapsack: Selected poems 1980-2017
David Corfe
FeedARead £6.99*
* available from feedaread.com

Gasp! A collection of musings and reflections from the heart on the sometimes choppy voyage of life
Hilary Jane Hughes
Sacristy Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

Short Histories of Light
Aidan Chafe
McGill-Queen’s University Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

The Paradise Tree: Personal prayer through poetry
John Davey
Sacristy Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

Toddy Hoare
Olympia Publishers £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30

The Geese Flew Over My Heart: Poems for prayer and reflection
Lyn McCrave
Sacristy Press £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

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