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Sheenagh Pugh "Sheenagh Pugh" (Shetland)
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AnySharp Plastic and Stainless Steel Mini Chopper, Black
AnySharp Plastic and Stainless Steel Mini Chopper, Black
Price: £12.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Small but good, 11 Jun. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a neat little product, but the operative word is "little". It's fine for small stuff like garlic, ginger and nuts, but forget onions, it'll only do them in quarters and you might as well do a whole one by hand. The action is easy and the design keeps the blades well out of harm's way. It comes apart for cleaning; I couldn't work out how, but my hubby sussed it in a minute so I expect that's just me. Of course there are no written instructions, just pictures on the box. i don't know when it was decided that nobody could read and we'd all find pictures easier to follow. I don't.

The best thing is that it it doesn't rely on electricity or batteries, which makes it quick and easy for small stuff, when you might not feel like getting out a big contraption that would have to be dismantled and cleaned after. For £12.49, it's a useful gadget


Englaland
Englaland
by Steve Ely
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "No alteration but in names", 1 Jun. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Englaland (Paperback)
Steve Ely's previous collection, Oswald's Book of Hours was by some way the most memorable and unusual collection I read in 2013. It felt like quite a short, tight collection, not in the sense of inhibited but economical, every word working like mad. Englaland is much longer, looser and baggier, more sprawling, but there is a good reason for that; it is trying to portray a whole culture, and over a period of a millennium and more. The back cover suggests this culture is that of "the English" but that doesn't seem to me to be quite so: it is pretty specifically Northern. And as in Oswald's Book of Hours, the past continually collides with the present, is in the present – the epigraph to the collection's first section is William Faulkner's "The past is never dead. It is not even past."

There are seven sections, and in the first, he cuts cinematically between stragglers from the 10th-century battle of Brunanburh, fleeing and pursuing each other, and twentieth-century lads in the same landscape, trespassing, bird-nesting, looking for a fight. Those seeking refuge in the stream, aware of "waterline, rat tunnels, hand-holds for drowners" could be from either time, and the victors of Brunanburh who "ride garlanded in ears" are reminiscent, purposely no doubt, of the Falklands War soldier from Oswald's Book of Hours who did the same.

Indeed, though I said the book was looser and more expansive than its predecessor, it is full of linking chains of images, words, places – the landscapes of the Ryknild ridge and Frickley Park, which first appear here, will crop up in other sections, and the question in the first section "Whose is this land?" is the theme of the third section, "Common", which is all about ownership, particularly of land (trespass and poaching figure throughout the book, but most here). In the fifth section, "The Harrowing of the North", past and present are again linked indissolubly by one of these chains. Here, the effect on the north (and elsewhere, but the "elsewhere" isn't exactly stressed) of the miners' strikes and pit closures of the 1980s is compared with the punitive action waged in the north of England in 1069 by William of Normandy (generally known in this book as William the Bastard, which is pleasantly familiar to one used to his Welsh name of Gwilym Bastert). The narrator of "Ballad of the Scabs" mocks the UDM for their optimistic belief that co-operating with the government would save their pits:

And Foulstone, Butcher, Taylor,
how's your job for life?

The next poem, 1069, shows William conquering by dividing his enemies: "he bought off Osbjorn and bribed Malcolm of Scots". This poem ends with the words of the Domesday Book recording the names of villages laid waste in this conflict: "Warter, wasta, Wetwang, wasta, Wichum, wasta…" And the next poem, which returns to the present to show a dying, demoralised ex-pit village, is titled "Wasta"... There could scarcely be a simpler or more effective way to link past and present, to assert, as the earl of Newcastle once said without result to his unsatisfactory pupil the young Charles I, "what you read, I would have it history so that you might compare the dead with the living; for the same humours is now as was then, there is no alteration but in names." Nor does it end here: poem titles like "Search and Destroy", a litany of the names of dead pits, and the image, (when a disused pit is demolished in "A sin and a shame") of a crew dynamiting "the twin towers/of the winding gear" leave no way to see the proceedings except in terms of war.

There is considerable variety of form in this collection. Quite apart from the fact that one section is a short play and another an extended narrative in alliterative verse, there are ballads, prose-poems and the same creative use of white space and shaping familiar from his earlier collection. The alliterative piece, "Big Billy", in fact puzzles me slightly, because I'm not sure what role it plays in the pattern. Everywhere else in the book, the battles are about something: access to land, identity, holding on to what one has. Billy, a prizefighter, seems to fight for no better cause than to prove who's the best at punching and gouging (there is money involved but that clearly is not why it is happening). My best guess is that Billy represents fighting spirit in its purest form, but if he is being seen as a hero, which I think he is, then his name is a conundrum, because Norman William is no hero in the rest of this book. I suppose it could be mere coincidence, but it is a measure of the craft of this collection that I find it hard to credit that anything here is done for no reason. Though I'm unsure what this section is trying to do, what works brilliantly in it is the exuberance of the language, particularly for flyting purposes. I hadn't realised what a great medium alliterative verse can be for insulting people: "valourless-vagrant, vile vardo-vagabond".

The least poetically successful section seemed to me to be the sixth, "Mongrel Blood Imperium" which considers the various cultures and ethnicities that inhabit the landscape. I don't know if it's an overwhelming desire to convince, but at times in this section (eg "Acts of Union") the verbal music seemed to go missing, to be replaced by flatter, prosier statements than he normally deals in. I think something similar happens when he assumes Peter Mandelson's voice in "Scum of the Earth", the playlet. Not to be ungrateful, because any play in which Mandelson and Wellington fight each other and both get killed is an enchanting thought, but Mandelson's voice would be funnier and more biting satire if he were saying things he might actually say, as Burns makes "Holy Willie" do, rather than things an opponent might put unconvincingly into his mouth.

The last section, "The Song of the Yellowhammer", harks back to Brunanburh and its victor Athelstan, described by his contemporary the poet Egil as a "golden-haired Aetheling". This long, mesmerising poem is literally flooded with the colour yellow – corn, cheese, gold, ragwort, dandelions, gorse, sand, pears, a yellow moon:

The white-tailed eagle's
sunlit eye
tracks Humber's gullet
along Ouse, Don and Ea
to the slow blonde stones
and saffron clays of Hampole.
An orchard
of yellow pears.
Aureate moon, soft light of xanthic tallow.

It's a landscape with a golden haze on it. There seems to be a tentative hope such as George Mackay Brown sometimes expressed, that landscape will survive what people do to it and that they may eventually return to the land with a keener appreciation of it.

For most of this collection, and there's a lot of it, 200 pages no less, one is in the presence of the same linguistic exuberance, intellectual vigour and keen sense of living history as in Oswald's Book of Hours, and that's reason enough to buy any book. It's also very ambitious, far more so than most of the neat, controlled 64 or72-pagers you'll read this year. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the title: what's that about, then? On one level, "Englaland" obviously carries an echo of "la la land". But modern words, place-names especially, tend to be worn-down versions of older ones, and just as Bolton, in this book, is occasionally Bodelton, depending on who is speaking and when, so this was, and still is, Angle-land, and there's your third syllable. The past is not past: it is in the present and intrinsic to it; it is how the present came to be.


Fishbowl
Fishbowl
by Bradley Somer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.69

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The human goldfish bowl, 30 May 2015
This review is from: Fishbowl (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a very readable, humorous, engaging novel – just don't judge it by its first and last chapters, In Which, to borrow the format of the chapter headings, Our Author Is A Little Too Pleased With His Own Narrative Techniques.

I was attracted by the lure of a character called Ian the Goldfish, whose journey in search of freedom forms part of the book. This is so, and Ian is indeed a welcome if intermittent visitor to these pages, but he's an observer rather than a character, and fairly peripheral to the action. He's really there as a metaphor: his "fishbowl" (or goldfish bowl as the UK would know it) is an image for the apartment block which really is at the centre of things. Nearly all the characters either live in or visit the block, and it is the connecting link between their stories. This is actually quite an old-fashioned technique: the use of a building or something similar as a hook to hang stories on was popular in films and novels of the 40s and 50s, and in fact the narrative voice of Fishbowl occasionally reminds me of a 1951 novel by the once hugely popular, now largely forgotten, Norman Collins, "Children of the Archbishop", in which a London bus is used in the same way. The first chapter announces this intent, unfortunately at some length; it takes four pages to say, basically, "this story is set in an apartment block".

When, however, he's done expatiating on his theme of "a box that contains life and everything else", things pick up almost as fast as Ian descends 27 floors. Somers' people are well drawn and easy to become involved with, and his use of the out-of-order elevator as a plot device is masterly, especially when combined with how he switches between stories so that we are sometimes ahead of the characters – we are awaiting breathlessly the meeting of two unsuspecting women on a staircase for a considerable time before it happens. The short chapters are not only very easily readable, they also suit the episodic nature of the action and maintain the pace. There's no doubt that we end up wanting to know what becomes of the under-appreciated janitor Jimenez, the obsessive-compulsive Claire, the vulnerable but resourceful Herman and many others, not forgetting Ian.

It soon becomes clear that many of the inhabitants of this block are, for one reason or another, lonely: the social isolation that can be generated in a community that consists of boxes within a box is well conveyed. Ian never finds any real meeting-point with his snail companion Troy; they are too different, but some of the people in the bigger fishbowl are luckier. In fact, for my taste there are a few too many happy endings neatly tied up with bows – people are miraculously presented with cures for mental conditions, new jobs and families to replace those they have lost and some of these don't convince me (Herman's for one, because the authorities would not, I think allow it). And in the last chapter the author again becomes a rather irritating presence, summing things up, telling us what may have happened after the book ends (surely the reader's privilege to speculate on?) and veering into cosy cliché with statements like "everything happens for a reason". For all the contemporary setting, he strikes me as quite a conventionally omniscient authorial voice, what Thackeray called a puppet-master. I doubt that, at the moment, he would let any of his characters surprise him, and he'll probably be a better writer when he does.

Nevertheless, I like this book. The man can tell a story and he has, for the most part, an engaging style. Because there are so many stories and outcomes, I'm finding it hard to quote without spoilers (not to mention the bother of remembering how prudish Amazon is about perfectly normal language in quotations), so here is Ian on his descent, glancing in at the passing windows of the tower block and reflecting on his own fishbowl. This is not a spoiler, because if you think there can be but one end to a goldfish who falls 27 floors, you are wrong.

Ian thinks of his fishbowl, now empty save for the algae, the pink plastic castle and Troy, slipping across the glass with his interminable munching. Ian thinks of what a lonely thing Troy's shell would be without the chewy organic mass of Troy to inhabit it. Ian won't miss the sound of Troy eating. He won't miss the constant slurping and sucking noises, the ripping noise Troy makes day and night as he sucks the algae from the walls. He won't miss that chiefly because his fishbowl is no longer even a memory for him.

Ian is distracted from his thoughts by something he spies through the dust-streaked glass of the balcony sliding door to the apartment he passes on the fifteenth floor. In the fraction of a second it takes, his mind captures a still life of the goings-on inside.


AcuLife Neti Rinse Nasal Irrigator
AcuLife Neti Rinse Nasal Irrigator
Price: £8.90

4.0 out of 5 stars Works well, 15 May 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I got a family member with allergies and sinus trouble to try this. Her report is:

The instructions are clear and the device easy to use (she suspects, easier than a Netipot, though she hasn't used those, being put off by the fact that they sound quite hard to use). There's a moment near the start where you feel as if you're drowning, but it soon goes away. She did feel somewhat better (it wasn't a very bad allergy day, or she thinks she might have noticed more difference). She is not sure if it would have much of a long-term effect, without removing the cause of the allergies, but one would have to test the device more often over a long period to be sure of that, and Vine wants the reviews within a month, don't they? It does what it claims to, as far as she can see.


Solid Citizens (A Marcus Corvinus mystery)
Solid Citizens (A Marcus Corvinus mystery)
Price: £10.79

5.0 out of 5 stars A decent man at heart?, 12 May 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Why am I reviewing a novel from 2013? Maybe because it's a "genre" novel (historical detective) and I'm tired of people pigeonholing genre novels and not expecting them to raise the sort of questions you'd expect in a litfic novel, when in fact they crop up just as regularly.

For those who aren't already fans, Wishart's detective hero is an upper-class Roman layabout called Marcus Corvinus with not much time for his own class, and a talent for furkling about finding out the truth of things others want to hide. He also happens to talk like the Roman equivalent of a Raymond Chandler hero. He and his slightly anarchic household are the source of a lot of incidental humour in the books.

This one is set in the small town of Bovillae, where the local senate has asked Corvinus to look into the recent murder of the censor-elect, Caesius, an upstanding citizen with a squeaky-clean reputation who was found with his head beaten in near the back door of the local brothel (where the madame cheerfully admits he was a regular customer). The town dignitaries are fearfully embarrassed about this, but as Corvinus soon discovers, they have worse things to be embarrassed about. The town lawyer (Novius, whom we've met in a previous book) has a long and shady past: civic dignitaries Manlius and Canidius are up to their ears in a financial scam, even the local antique dealer does a good line in fakes and almost nobody is telling the truth about where they were, or with whom, on a certain evening…. Solid citizens often have things to hide.

But what of the victim: was he as solid as he seemed? Opinion is divided. Those who knew him as a politician and businessman give him a good name for probity. But his closest relatives, his brother and nephew, do not hide their contempt for him (though they do hide the reason). Granted, the brother is the town drunk and the nephew a ne'er-do-well. But might they, for once, be telling more truth than the solid citizens? And why does Anthus, the loyal major-domo who is never done singing his late master's praises, utter the rather equivocal encomium "He was a decent man, at heart"?

This line is in fact key – as is one from another minor character: "He wasn't a bad man, he did his best for the town". Previous Corvinus books, notably Food for the Fishes, have stressed the difference between what was legal in Rome, and what was socially acceptable. Divorce, for instance, was quite legal, as was killing a slave for no good reason, but neither would do you much good either socially or professionally. The same disconnect comes up here, but this time in relation to a different activity. Another thing I get tired of is the assumption that historical novels are somehow turned away from our own time, indifferent to "contemporary" problems which are the preserve of litfic. The secret Caesius was keeping could hardly be more relevant or "contemporary".

And the odd thing is that at a couple of points, I nearly guessed it; there are clues left, if you listen to them. But I persuaded myself it couldn't be so, because I couldn't equate it with the facts and opinions I was hearing. Now the reason it doesn’t square with certain alleged facts is simple: people are lying through their teeth (as again I might have guessed if I'd been a bit more alert). But the opinions are another matter. In the end, the book asks you to compartmentalise to a degree, to accept that a man might do X and still be, in other respects – even "at heart" – a decent man, not a total fraud whose good side was entirely fake. This may be harder for us to do than even for the Romans – I can't see anyone nowadays daring to make the remark that Anthus made. But it makes for a fascinating, thought-provoking read. One of his best.


Negativity's Kiss (To)
Negativity's Kiss (To)
by Alice Notley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Not your usual poetry book, 13 April 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Negativity's Kiss (To) (Paperback)
I leave the hospital in full autumn – fog
and, when you can find it
a yellow blaze that remembers love for
you

It may sound odd, after quoting lines like those, to say; when you first read this, don't read it as if it were a poem. But though the language and cadences are clearly those of poetry, the narrative structure is that of a noir crime novel. The I in those lines is Ines, short for Inessential, a poet whose political and anti-religious views have attracted the attention both of a state secret agent and a bunch of religious fanatics, and who is recovering after having been shot. Whodunnit is a question that occupies both Ines and the policeman who becomes her friend/admirer, Cop (short for Copernicus) Smith. There are several possible suspects, including Charl (Charlatan), a media mogul, Orphée, an older poet/songwriter who resents her for being the anti-establishment figure he was once thought to be, and CS (Current Sweetheart), a younger, female poet who resents her for being alive and in the way of her own success:

She does
have to die first. 'Cause I'm
the younger poet.

There's also a murder which has already taken place and been recorded on a video: the victim being a young woman called Harvard Washington but known as Harry, and the murderer a man who is for a long time called Hooded, until he becomes Verball.

It should be clear by now, firstly, that there's a lot of grim, wry humour about this book (her coinage for the internet, The Garble, is priceless), secondly, that it has a lot to do with the place of poetry in contemporary society (bear in mind, as you read, that it was written at the time of Hurricane Katrina, which explains some of its apocalyptic mood) and thirdly, that it is very unlike most books of poetry. Indeed if you don't normally like or read poetry, it might be just the book to start with, though if you do already read poetry, it should come as a welcome (or at the very least, bracing) change from what you normally read.

I first came across it when Notley read some of these poems at the STAnza poetry festival. She gave far the most dramatic, energetic reading I'd ever heard. I haven't been able to find any example online of her reading from this book, and the readings I have found, though they convey some of her energy and humour, don't quite have the force I felt from her stage presence, which was electrifying. I wasn't sure afterwards how much of the effect was down to her and how much to the work itself. I can say now, having read it, that Negativity's Kiss is indeed a powerful piece of writing that works on the printed page, though if you ever get the chance to hear her read from it, I strongly urge you not to miss it. The exchange between "every religion" and Ines had, when she read it, a stunning effect on its audience, but is still memorable here:

detailed dogmatic form of superstition
rites in a language ancient or
glossolalian, or one of our fanatics may
break free of our benign moral constraints
and shoot you. We are aware that you have
been shot once before
we would be sorry if you got shot again.

I Ines say: […]

may your temples of cosmic allegations collapse
may your myths be forgotten
may your prophets and saints and patriarchs
finally die into the unmemorized night


Faithful and Virtuous Night
Faithful and Virtuous Night
by Louise Gluck
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.95

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Every time I say "I"....., 8 April 2015
Normally one of my criteria for reviewing something is that it might need a bit of publicity, which Glück clearly does not. But I'm making an exception for this, not just because Glück is one of my favourite living poets but because none of the reviews I've seen of this seem to mention what, to me, is quite a major aspect of it.

There are two distinct personae in it, both of whom use the "I" voice. Not all the poems are in these two voices, in particular the prose poems tend not to be, but many are. The first voice is female, a writer; her parents are dead and she has, or had, a younger sister who may also be dead. This "I" voice, or one very like it, has appeared in Glück's work before. The second voice is male, and has a back-story involving the death of his parents in a car accident when he was a young child. He is a painter and has an older brother. For most of the book, it is always clear which persona we are listening to, but the last two poems in the "I" voice, "The Story of a Day" and "A Summer Garden" could, it seems to me, be in either voice, and in the final prose poem, "The Couple in the Park", it is possible that they both appear - it begins "A man walks alone in the park and beside him a woman walks, also alone".

It's entirely possible that both these constructs are different facets of one personality; also that they aren't. There are motifs that run through both narratives - a phone ringing, a head-resting-on-hands gesture, a sycamore tree. There is also, in the poem "Afterword", a handy reminder of the role of the word "I" in a poem:

One speaks a word: I.
Out of this stream
the great forms-

I took a deep breath. And it came to me
the person who drew that breath
was not the person in my story, his childish hand
confidently wielding the crayon-

Had I been that person?

In many ways, this is one of her most elusive collections and I'm not at all sure I have a handle on it yet. Though it has all her trademark melancholy, where some of her best-known collections, like The Wild Iris and Averno, have centred on the fear of personal extinction, this seems to me to be more concerned with the loss of loved persons and, perhaps, with the essential isolation of being human. It's also often interested in the difficulty of expressing any of this in art, the art of words included, and often sounds a note of frustration.

Yet of course, being Glück, it succeeds, over and over, in encapsulating a world of loss, nostalgia, regret into a few memorable lines - as in "The Sword in the Stone":

I walked awhile, staring into the windows of the galleries-
my friends had become famous.

or the writer-persona's conversation with her dead mother in "Visitors from Abroad":

My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.

We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of  your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother's arms.

But for us, she said, you wouldn't exist.
And your sister --you have your sister's soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.

3

The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow
and the trees glittering, encased with ice.

I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.

I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say "I," it refers to you.


Mr Beams Outdoor Wireless Motion Sensor Activated 80-Lumen Led Path Lights with Ground Stakes, Set of 2
Mr Beams Outdoor Wireless Motion Sensor Activated 80-Lumen Led Path Lights with Ground Stakes, Set of 2
Price: £30.31

3.0 out of 5 stars Not a lot for £40, 23 Mar. 2015
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
You don’t get a lot for your money. For almost £40 you get 2 lightweight, plastic, garden lights. They are reasonably stylish, are easy to position and give adequate light.

They each require 4 ‘C’-cell batteries, which, it is claimed, will give 50 hours of LED light. It is difficult to assess this claim without spending all night in the garden, but battery life will clearly be dependent on conditions and the quality of the batteries. To get the maximum life out of the batteries do not place the lights near to a public road or footpath, as the lights will be on and off with every passing vehicle, person or animal.

They work well next to our garden steps where they provide much needed light, for safety reasons, at night.

They stand about 15 inches above ground level and are secured by a 6 inch plastic spike. They seem stable enough, but I am not sure how well they would stand up to any heavy blows or knocks. And, how well they will stand up to winter gales and hailstorms remains to be seen, but I am concerned at how lightweight they are.


Boy Running
Boy Running
by Paul Henry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.09

5.0 out of 5 stars This Song, 19 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Boy Running (Paperback)
Clocks. Rivers. Skylights. Arches and arcs. Songs. The sea. Henry's poetry is becoming not just more and more musical but more fugue-like, forever picking up themes and motifs from earlier work that deepen and grow more haunting each time he does so. His first collection, decades back, was called Time Pieces, and ever since, the passing of time has sounded in his work; the stone his younger ghost-self kicks through a Sixties housing estate in this book is "four million today"; has been there since the estate was a primeval swamp. He is "kicking a time piece".

The names of former neighbours inhabit this long poem as the names of women inhabited his spellbinding long poem "Penllain" from The Brittle Sea and earlier poems, notably in The Milk Thief. To me, at least, the name-listing in "Kicking the Stone" does not have quite the same resonance as that; I think because these are neighbours and friends, while Catrin Sands, Brown Helen and the rest were family (anyone biographically minded who wants to know more about them may care to look at the interview Henry gave at http://sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com/60657.html). In fact the final section of "Kicking the Stone" rises quite suddenly to a new height of impassioned involvement:

O scuff of sunny dust,
preserve this woman's song
only the stone and I can hear
up the unfinished road.

Preserve this woman's song
that finds the sea in a stone
as we pass by, up the road,
up the unfinished song.

And I think this heightened intensity can only be because the "musical house" where this happens, where a soprano is rehearsing, has to be Henry's own childhood home (his mother was a professional singer).

Brown Helen and the others do in fact recur by name in two poems: "Wardrobe Time" and "Brown Helen on Harbour Beach", and both have not just a nostalgic but a slightly elegiac tone, as if he might be saying goodbye to them. I sort of hope not, because they have become familiar and loved ghosts to the reader as well as the poet, but work does move on. Family life has always been important in his poems, but in this collection the protagonist is distanced from his family; in the collection's first poem, "Usk", the eponymous river is both the distance and the link between the speaker, "upstream", and the "you" he addresses, in the "mess of streets" where the river turns to sludge (ie, Newport). And the "boys" whose childhood has featured in earlier collections are distanced not only in space but by time, the adulthood which brings independence and loosens parental ties. In "Late Kick-Off" the ghost-boys return in fancy:

They are coming back to me
taller than I imagined
and too old to warm inside my fleece.
It has been too long.
They must be cold by now.
I'll warm up the engine.

Those three short sentences at the end: a reminder that Henry has always been skilled at using the unromantic tools of sentence structure to create pace, tension, emotion. He must also be one of the most skilled and unobtrusive rhymers currently working; his natural musicality lends itself to form, but it's a different and more verbal skill that makes the rhyme in "Blackrock: the Bedsit Years" read so unforced:

The lost years owned a rent-book
and sometimes fell behind.
Damp, second-hand,
they clung to what they took,
sang between cracked walls,
had plans, murdered mice,
came and went, imprecise
in their choice of doorbells.

"Davy Blackrock", a new character in his work, is a sort of modern avatar of the 18th-century harpist and composer Dafydd Owen, better known as Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), who is remembered today for the tune that bears his name. There is a fair amount of humour in Davy, but also much darkness. The final poem of both this section and the collection is neither up- nor downbeat; it expresses inevitability, the way our past shapes us and the necessity of living with that:

However badly we played our love,
slipped out of key, this song.

It will not forget us, haunts us now,
plays us into the dusk, this song.

It seems appropriate, in such a music-haunted, crafted collection, that this final poem is called "Song" and is a ghazal. But the poem that strikes me as most like a keynote for this collection would probably be "Under the River", both for its musicality, the way it uses refrain and the alternating short and long sentences to drive its rhythms, and for the way he has always had of seeing inside and beyond things:

Under the river a deeper river runs.
It is simply a case of pressing your ear
your heart to the bank, about here,
then of listening to its quieter turns

to the voices of loved ones
you thought would never rise again,
holding you now, with an old refrain.
Under the river a deeper river runs.


Poems of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross: Unpublished Works from Manuscript with 'Ane Godlie Dreame'
Poems of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross: Unpublished Works from Manuscript with 'Ane Godlie Dreame'
by Elizabeth Melville
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Feare not to win out, 14 Mar. 2015
Elizabeth Melville (c1578-1640) was the earliest female Scottish poet to have her work appear in print. It is powerful, accomplished and shows great technical mastery. Yet the Oxford and Penguin Books of Scottish Verse ignore it; only in recent anthologies of women's verse has it appeared. Why so long a wait? A long-standing tendency for academics to underrate women's poetry is certainly part of it; so, perhaps, may be the fact that much of her poetry, until lately, was only available in manuscript form and thus less likely to attract the less thorough anthologist. It is also possible that being written in Scots has told against it; even Dunbar and Henryson are not as highly rated in the wider English-speaking world as they should be.

But when Jamie Reid Baxter, editor of this volume, spoke on Melville at St Andrews recently, he suggested another reason: her uncompromising subject matter. Her one theme is religion: she writes as a Presbyterian, conscious of sin, believing she can be saved not by her own merit, nor by any intermediary like a saint or a priest, but only by her direct relationship with God. It follows that when she does not sense his presence in her life, she experiences deep sensations of loss and grief, while the moments when she does have an intermittent sense of his grace are so intense as to be hard for a modern reader to share, unless indeed one reads them as one would a love-poem to a human being. Most religious poets – Herbert, Donne – sometimes sound like love-poets, but female religious poets like the Welsh hymn-writer Ann Griffiths are particularly apt to do so, and Melville certainly does:

thee alone
my onlie one
the first and eik the last. (Meditation on Psalm 42)

One of the most staggering things about Melville is her metrical virtuosity. In her sacred parody of Marlowe's "Come live with me and be my love", she fashions a corona by picking up words from the last line of one verse in the first of the next:

Come live with me and be my love
And all these pleasurs thou shalt prove
That in my word hath warned thee
O loath this life and live with me

This life is but a blast of breath
Nothing so sure as dreadful death
And since the time no man can know
Sett not thy love on things below

For things below will wear away
And beautie brave will soon decay
Look to that life that lasts for ever
And love the love that failes thee never

I never failed thee in thy need….

and she keeps this up for three more pages, never sounding in the least forced. In sonnets to Andrew Melville, she employs the fiendishly difficult rime batelée, where the end-rhyme of one line is picked up internally in the next:

Do not complain to suffer heir a space
A schour of grace unto thy saull sall raine
This world in vaine sall seik to spoill thy peace

She is adept at anagrams, alliterative constructions, writing words to complicated psalm and song tunes. Technically she is the equal of any poet of her time (or of many other times) and the superior of most. But she is not, ever, your dry-as-dust technician. Her meditations on her relationship with God are thought-provoking and by no means always expected or conventional:

Oh qhuat is man
Lord think I than
that thow began
thy great and wonderous works for him alone
thow did not spair
thy angells fair
but punisch'd sair
thair pride and banisch'd them out of thy throne
and put them clein away
out of thy sicht
preferring dust and clay
to angels bricht.

One would think, too, that even readers who do not share her religious beliefs could share both her sense of loneliness in the world and her exultation at the thought of heavenly justice:

Thou tramps proud tirrants down
under thy feit
and plucks from kings thair crown
quhen thou thinks meit
the humble men
exalts thou then
and lifts the lowlie hairt above the sky
The proud at last
thou dois down cast
and heirs the puir opprest quhen they do cry.

Thanks to Baxter's efforts, there is now an inscribed flagstone commemorating her as one of Scotland's great writers in Makars' Court, Edinburgh, with a quotation from her long poem "Ane Godlie Dreame":

"Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore
Defy them all, and feare not to win out".

It has taken too long for Melville's poetry to "win out" from obscurity, but now that we have it in an accessible volume, it's well worth getting to know.


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