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New poetry collections by Sean Borodale, Karen Hughes, David John Keighley, and others

14 May 2021

Martyn Halsall reviews collections of work by contemporary poets

EACH of these seven collections of poetry could be labelled as “spiritual”, from the meditated observations of the minute as reflected in mindfulness to a more traditional Christian engagement through worship and scriptural text. Together, these books could compose a symposium, about how any faith community could engage with the convalescent world, if and when plague recedes.

Sean Borodale pays microscopic attention to insects in Inmates. His poems are fragmentary, bordering on the abstract. His concentrated writing reflects close observations from a miniature world in which the human is peripheral. He sets out his writer’s role in Tick Hatchery: “To examine, / to more closely microscope the waiting”.

This immediately introduces an example of such waiting: “incubating light refracted over clusters / of eggs unhatched, still.”

From such attention and interpretation balloon, or hatch, huge themes of birth, death, and hard-won survival: “The blue sky has widened its pupil / to let us through”, he writes in “Bumble Bee”.

These poems were presumably written, and published, before the exile of pandemic, yet their settings seem prophetic of a darkening belief-system:

A closed-down, harrowing quiet begins.
The decayed, devastated annuities of trees.
The collapsing quoits of years.

Borodale’s writing offers both passport and revelation; his subjects are often close to death, or decay. Their deftly conjured worlds are places of rot, dank, dark, damp, peripheral sheds or outhouses that represent the outdoors as also indoors. In poems as finely balanced and perilous as watercolour paintings, he builds a world of threat, yet also with reverence for the tones and form of the most vulnerable: “all the necessary gifts — precision, the celebrant’s tongue, and that touch of mystery that sets certain poets apart”, as George Mackay Brown wrote of Michael Longley.

Karen Hayes is much concerned with the supporting players and back-stages of faith; guardians of relics, “hardware stores, / Which sprawl onto the pavements / In the backstreets of Athens”, in her intriguing and fluent collection A Sense of Tiptoe. Issues of class and religious apartheid are woven through stately, often rhyming stanzas that acknowledge a debt to Charles Causley.

Her writing, equally, feels connected and lived in, with the integrity of genuine experience. The faith that she explores has known turmoil and ambivalence. It feels hard-won, like the attentive analysis that she brings to studies of works of art by such varied characters as Turner and Caravaggio.

Hayes brings a modern, even post-modern, exploration to familiar Christian accounts and images, enabling creative reassessment, and refreshing what may otherwise be glossed over by over-familiarity. Her language is fresh and vivid, by-passing cliché and the expected, even when exploring well-worn destinations such as ancient churches, and bell-ringing. This collection is a presentation of gifts, vivid, and rewarding:

Some moments are dense as forests,
Overhung, with the premature sense of future recall,
Drops of water, cast like runes, revealing all
And trapped on the skin of a leaf.

Despite its title, Poems, Piety, and Psyche, David Keighley’s collection is primarily polemic, campaigning for genuine debate and dialogue within the institutional Church. Completing this 232-page anthology in the initial months of lockdown, he summarises 40 years of priesthood (“theology on the hoof”) hallmarked by disillusionment with bishops and theological colleges that promote Christian mythology as literal, while recognising its spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy. “So what is it with wasps and termites, / rats and jellyfish, / and viruses, especially viruses?” he asks in “God’s Good Creation”.

His autobiographical “Turbulent Priest” is a savage indictment of church authorities more concerned with preservation than the prophetic. Despite polemic threatening to overwhelm the poetic — or a seeming inability at times of the two to co-exist — this is also a collection reflecting insistent hope, phrased in the paradox of God’s love:

Love is always a victim
when power is challenged
by weakness
and leads to a Cross.

These “progressive poems for rebellious Christians” do not particularly shine or sing, but their lack of lustre and music underlines their hard-won conflict.

Kenneth Steven’s poems, in his 15th collection, Out of the Ordinary, become most interesting when he sets aside frequent preoccupations with moonlight and organic spirituality to engage with a prisoner’s family or political repression. Solitary, arguably lonely, poems evoke the natural world, but also its costs.

For much of this collection, Steven seems a poet of the “emptiness” that he ably conjures. Within his familiar Scottish highlands and islands, his poems reflect distance; reoccurring images are transient swallows, and far-away traffic. Christian festivals are explored through others.

Steven remains a generous host, sharing wild places through intrigued observations that are sharpest when filed with social application. His references to other writers — Tolstoy, Hardy, Dostoevsky — reflect pilgrim searching. Spirituality emerges within the apparently secular: “the whole air hallowed with birdsong”, or a resurrection motif in a flock of swans. He also watches the “black crows” of churchgoers from a distance, though his final “Easter” sequence celebrates personal recognition.

Christine Valters Paintner follows similar, if detached, Celtic references as “The Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery integrating contemplative practice and creative expression”. One sequence of poems in The Wisdom of Wild Grace explores myths of saints’ relationships with animals, as coalitions of human and animal “wildness”: “the wild is a place within us”. Myths and fairy tales form another section in a collection grounded in her “monastery’s” Irish fastness, where the 21st century can feel elusive.

Diane Pacitti celebrates the historic and the contemporary in Dark Angelic Mills, reflecting on her work as Poet in Residence at Bradford Cathedral during its centenary year. She sets the church within its historic and social contexts, working from the geological to the theological. These poems share a generous faith, inviting — as in “To Any Visitor” — an involved observance “to change from tourist to pilgrim”, adopting centuries of prayer for a fraught present.

Yours faithfully. This church held the world
Of your far-distant ancestors in its prayers;
Become part of that prayer, then take it outside
Into the driven crowds, the impatient roads.

Pacitti makes lively use of varied sources, from the Domesday Book with its record of “tax, profit, ownership” to the news agenda of the Bradford Telegraph when the church was granted cathedral status in 1919. Poems also summon a varied cast, from the philanthropist Titus Salt to the fictional Billy Liar; from medieval saints Cuthbert and Hilda to a Christian-Muslim women’s coalition against racism. Her poems’ histories are continuous, and unfinished — “We are all displaced migrants” — where both monks and Muslims use prayer mats.

This fluent and engaging collection provides a model for similar residences, and will provoke useful discussion about how such commissions can be fulfilled.

Graham Kings’s collection is surprisingly flat, given his background of international mission, parish work, and the episcopate, and the foundation of meditation which his work addresses. Flashes of word-play light up Nourishing Connections, but too often the poems feel predictable and over-protective, like the mannered illustrations of detached figures which illustrate his sequence “Women in the Bible”.

For all his addresses, ranging from Cambridge to Kenya, and Yale to Dorset, these poems disclose little geographical presence. You close this book with a sense of disappointment: that the poetic journey had not been richer, the meditations more musical and profound.

Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist. His latest poetry collection is
Visible Music (Caldew Press, 2020), about a Christian experience of cancer.


Join our poetry retreat Send My Roots Rain to be held online on Saturday 15 May. Tickets are on sale for £15, or £10 for a Church Times subscriber. Register here.


Sean Borodale
Cape £10
Church Times Bookshop £9


A Sense of Tiptoe
Karen Hayes
Holland Park Press £8

Poems, Piety, and Psyche
David John Keighley
Resource Publications £20
Church Times Bookshop £18


Out of the Ordinary
Kenneth Steven
Saint Andrew Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90


The Wisdom of Wild Grace
Christine Valters Paintner
Paraclete Press £15
Church Times Bookshop £13.50


Dark Angelic Mills
Diane Pacitti
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90


Nourishing Connections
Graham Kings
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

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