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Book review: poetry round-up

08 December 2023

Martyn Halsall casts an eye over current poets’ recent collections

RED is the dominant colour, and religious faith is the highest common denominator, on Death Row. Together, this shade of rage and pragmatic consolation form the setting for an indictment, in poetry and prose, of the barbarity of America’s condemnation system. George Wilkerson, a prize-winning poet and Death Row inmate for almost 20 years, writes of the 130 men in North Carolina waiting, one indeterminate day, to die:

These are men in decline
marked by prison life,
for life, even if they escape
their death sentences.

In Bone Orchard: Reflections on life under sentence of death, he intersperses terse, documentary poems with supportive texts of letters and memoir. “On the row, the doors are painted a congealed red, like an implicit threat,” he wrote to his mother, on his first day, in 2006. “Other than the walls, it seems that all the painted surfaces on death row are red. The bunks, the railings, the steps, windowsills. Even our jumpsuits are red.”

His co-author, Robert Johnson, a professor of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University, also contributes short poems, as if the almost overwhelming demands of his judicial agenda demand the decency of brevity. Religious faith provides a code:


people into felons
felons into objects
objects into grist

for the Death House

reads “Transubstantiation”, in full.

“It’s no surprise that most here find religion,” Wilkerson writes. “I know of no atheists here.” Religious affiliation affords privileges; services are “also a type of recreation”. Those registering as Jewish qualify for Kosher meals; Roman Catholics can add rosary beads to prison uniforms; Muslims can trade their festival lamb chops. Wilkerson’s own beliefs appear in stark alliance with his unending sentence in this vital and coruscating indictment.

In contrast to isolation — the Death Row prisoners were allowed one phone call, once a year, until reforms in 2016 — the expanse of islands hallmarks the poetry of Martin Wroe and David Hodges. Wroe wrote parts of Julian of Norwich’s Teabag while volunteering on the Scottish pilgrim island of Iona. Hodges, a Cambridge-educated former lawyer, takes references in his ninth collection from his later calling as a monk at the Cistercian Abbey on Caldey Island, off the south coast of Wales.

Wroe is a writer of subtlety and intrigue, letting the writer decipher parables as beguiling as his title. Like his mentor, Julian of Norwich, he relishes the elasticity of the small-scale, the elevation of the apparently inconsequential. Julian’s cosmic hazelnut becomes his tea bag. “Even nothing is usually up to something,” he notes. References range from an American launderette, to the people whom he encounters in north London; from a “lockdown psalm” to wedding celebrations.

I see how we move around each
    other, circling or tangled
Stretched to our limits, crumpled,
Baptised, then dried, tired but

he writes in “Poem launderette”. The creative God is often an unnamed presence among Wroe’s meditations, which, as in “Cairn” celebrate both disclosure and apparent paradox:

I stand in the ruination of words
And praise their endless daring
I lay another prayer on the pile
Adding to history’s intercession.

One of the disappointments of the collection by Hodges is how little emerges of his holy island. Joys of walking, praying, digging, and watching soon fade into a procession of micro-sermons, and meditations that might have come from anywhere. Sometimes, the imagery edges into the banal: “you’re brave like Christ was on the Cross” he tells “Little robin in my tree, / singing there for me”. While he writes, somewhat didactically, of “the timeless beauty / of this enchanting place” (“Caldey”), the poems often feel confined.

Like Wroe, Richard Briggs uses humour to season his spirituality in poems written over some 30 years by this theological teacher at St John’s College, Durham. Like Hodges, though, his “poetry for the Kingdom among us” is too eager to point the lesson at the expense of savouring the experience. There is no sense of the majesty in his “Durham Cathedral”. He notes “eyes stopped in awe”, but provides no supporting imagery. At least in the ponderously titled title poem set in Paris, “Pilgrims skid on sanded stairs / To the shadow of the Sacred Heart”, but otherwise the city, like the setting of many other poems, feels elusive, and their experience feels truncated.

“A sure way to kill poetry is to explain it to death,” writes Steven Shakespeare before setting off through a 12-page introduction to his “prayer poems for the Christian year”. That wade is worth the wait to reach Shakespeare’s intriguing and intelligent poems, following the liturgical seasons, contributing often alternative and illuminating perspectives, such as those of under-regarded women from the Old Testament, or the grouping of “Mary’s Sisters”.

These are poems — by a priest who is a professor at Liverpool Hope University — marinated in personal faith, which is given thoughtful expression with often a sidelong glance to energise and refresh familiar Christian understanding. Within the biblical, he reminds us of contemporary concerns, and the need for an appropriate Christian response, as in “Ashes to Ashes”:

We have to turn around now
back to the gift of creation
back to the song of the living
shining with the Spirit’s dew.

Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.

Bone Orchard: Reflections on life under sentence of death
George T. Wilkerson and Robert Johnson
Bleakhouse Publishing $9.31*
*via www.bleakhousepublishing.org

Julian of Norwich’s Teabag: Poems and prayers from morning to night
Martin Wroe
Wildgoose publications £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.89

Shelter from the Storm
David Hodges
The Abbey, Caldey Island £11.85*
*available from www.caldey-island.co.uk

Not of this Worldview: Poetry for the Kingdom among us
Richard S. Briggs
Sacristy Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69

Come Holy Gift: Prayer poems for the Christian Year
Steven Shakespeare
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £8.79

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