Thomas McColl, Grenade Genie: Review

From the opening poem, it’s clear that this collection is an unwaveringly close examination of the modern world, its landscapes and its politics.It moves from the fresh and interesting descriptions of “buses are bison and people are grass” (‘No Longer Quite so Sure’) to the didactic “You’ve made a pact with the digital devil” (‘The Evil Eye’). 

McColl’s language is at times furious, at times mischievous – but always earnest. There’s a lot of playfulness in this collection – the playing with sounds in ‘All the Beach is a Stage’, the self-mockery and criticism of instapoetry in ‘The Greatest Poem’, the punctuation games in ‘Just One Comma Away’ and the way he likes to toy with genres, mixing the classical (‘Shopping with Perseus’) with the contemporary, with references to the works of Ayatollah Khomeini along with way (‘Obsolete’)

Politics features strongly, bolstering most of the poems. McColl’s work is strongest when it’s at its most subtle and he gives his message room to breathe in wonderful phrases like “And though nothing matters/ when we’re all just matter ‘(Grenade Genius’). It’s this type of playful wordcraft that adds a lightness to the anticapitalism and keeps the message fresh.

Fiona Benson, Vertigo and Ghost: Review

Vertigo and Ghost is Fiona Benson’s second collection and the winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2019.. I was bowled over by Bright Traveller, falling in love with the way she weaves the natural world with human experience in a way that feels both warming yet sinister. I love the immediacy of her writing – the way she perfects the balance between the personal but without feeling confessional – although these are personal snapshots, they almost feel ‘everyman’ – in the way she uses the detail of the surroundings to pull us into the worlds the poems inhabit.

Although there is a lot of emotional power in Bright Traveller, I was surprised by the levels of anger and pain in the first section. The rage is potent, the structure intriguing, formatted as a form of interrogation – with victim accounts of their mistreatment at the hands of Zeus. We hear from Zeus, from the archives, from personal accounts and the stories of those ‘transformations ‘ – the stories of the women Zeus shapeshifted to attack. 

It’s a heady rush of emotion and we’re bombarded by sensory detail, rage and anguish. It’s difficult to keep afloat in this chorus of violence. The accounts roll like overlapping waves, peppered with Zeus’ fiery rage. He speaks only in capitals – and the juxtaposition of his roaring memories with the accounts of those he raped is shocking. 

“ITS TINY TRAIL OF STARS

THIS IS THE LIQUOR

GODS LIVE FOR, 

THIS TWENTY-ONE GRAMMES”

But it’s not just about classical rape – there are modern stories as well, of the criticism levelled at rape victims “in this world / the woman is blamed,” victims of honour killings, the victims of the Magdelene laundries – Benson’s anger transcends all boundaries. It’s the focus on the ravages their bodies take that makes it such difficult reading – especially when seen through a poet’s unflinching focus: “Split urethra, fistula, stitched rectum.” “He will tear her      with his slimy mouth” Even when he’s in chains, held in a hospital, we get a sense of Zeus’ power and perversion. This could be any man, any monster who utters the horribly sinister “WOULDN’T YOU LIKE /TO GO FOR A WALK? / THERE’S SOMEWHERE PRIVATE / I KNOW PRETTY GIRL.”

Part Two is back on more familiar ground, meshing natural imagery with personal experience. Death is a common motif in both human and natural worlds. Early in the section, two sparrows questions the role of a deity: 

“The nameless dead of the human world

Float endlessly down the corpse-choked river,

And I’m not sure of anything anymore,

Least of all benevolence, or God.”

But there’s still hope – like in ‘Almond Blossom’, ‘Toad’. As in Bright Traveller, there are a number of poems about childbirth which are very animalistic, such as when a placenta is described as a “meaty battery-pack”

The poems in the second half are deeply personal, narratives of a person wrestling with depression, of someone trying to understand miscarriage by looking to the natural world for solace and finding only their own despair reflected. ‘Love poem, Lucca’ and ‘Portrait of our Daughters’ are very personal, drawing inference from the poet’s own life. Many of the poems are pathetic fallacy on steroids. “Spring broke out but my soul did not.” in ‘Fly’  “mucky skies/ the sulks, the year’s downturn as winter shuts/ like a trap.” in ‘Marcela Sonnets.’

Some of the most affecting poems in this section are those that examine the  fear in the domestic as in the chilling ‘Hide and Seek’ where she imagines mothers hiding their babies from soldiers and the ‘Sho’ah”. This is swiftly followed by ‘Wood Song’  a poem about a woman’s need to hide from the evils of men :

“We are tracks in the dew

Vanishing at dawn,

We are mist, we are rain,

We are gone.”

The threat of male violence and its effects on women is woven through the collection and Benson takes great pains to highlight the fragility of content domesticity – best highlighted in unsettling phrases like the phrase “the sky’s being chainsawed open” in the final poem ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’.

The last lines of the collection bring us full circle, reminding us that women are still victims at the hands of men playing God in an image that could be overlaid on any contemporary rolling news channel. 

“Always some woman is running to catch up her children,

We dig them out of the rubble in parts like plaster dolls – 

Mary Mother of God have mercy, mercy on us all.”

The Salt Path: Raynor Winn

This had been on my radar for a while – the wonderful cover had me thinking of extended walks by the seaside – like a coastal Sebald or Solnit. It’s a little different, and not 100% what I was expecting. Instead of a poetic piece of psychogeographical narrative, this is a biography of a couple in their 50s and how, facing homelessness and terminal illness, they decide to walk the 630 mile South West Coast Path.

 

It’s funny, heart-breaking and full of eye-openers. We are brought face-to-face with the harsh realities of the lives of many living on the fringes of society through the way in which Ray and her husband Moss are treated by those they meet. Their encounters with others really shine a light on the prejudice around homelessness – selling one’s home and embarking on a walk is romantic, but losing it all through someone else’s bad business practice makes them unsavoury in the eyes of many. It’s very telling that it’s those with the least who treat them with the most kindness.  

 

Despite their problems and the difficulties they face, this is a book filled with optimism. They have very little money, but their ability to find joy in the smallest of things is inspiring – because who wouldn’t blow the day’s food budget on chips?

 

It’s a very enjoyable read, full of humour and self-deprecation. Ray’s narrative is honest and peppered with some wonderfully vivid observations of the natural world: 

“We sweated, drank all the water, gathered more from streams, sweated some more. Repeat. The baking jangle of boulders fell to sea level, then rose again, only to fall back.”

 

Although much of the narrative meshes descriptions of the natural world around them with the recounting of the many encounters with strangers they make on their journey, there are also some snippets of philosophical observations prompted by their experiences:

 

“We swam in the frothing incoming tide, surfing in on powerful waves of salt water that could have touched the shores of Iceland, Spain or America, a roaring broil that may have travelled thousands of miles or just two.”

 

The word inspirational is sometimes over-used, but very pertinent in any description of this book. Not only do their attitudes inspire the reader, but those they encounter on their journey are directly inspired by their journey – particularly the young. The message I took from this novel really lingered – that time is short and we need to make the most of it – as beautifully observed by Ray towards the end of the story:

 

“This second in the millions of seconds was the only one, the only one that we could live in. I was home, there was nothing left to search for, he was my home.”

Lanny: Max Porter

I devoured Porter’s first book Grief is a Thing with Feathers in one sitting, so I cleared an afternoon and settled in. Although I am a bit of a traditionalist in terms of form, there’s something about the way Porter dissolves the boundaries of form that is really accessible. 

Lanny opens with a barrage of language – lots of little overhead snippets that swamp the page. It’s a little like diving into a pool of unknown depths – slightly disconcerting at first but once you’ve got your bearings, the only thing to do is to relax into it and enjoy the texture. These opening bits featuring Dead Papa Toothwort were generally quite unsettling – the overhead snippets were humorous in parts and felt very contemporary in their content – but the voice of Dead Papa Toothwort felt like some sort of Gothic folk tale figure – and mixing the two brought this danger right into the modern world.

 

Although he is the subject of the novel, it’s interesting that we don’t hear from Lanny at all – we never see things from his perspective, only viewing him through the prism of someone else’s experience. In a way, this is what makes him such a fascinating character – he seems almost like a stereotype, a sort of symbol of childish innocence and by viewing him from a distance, he never stumbles from this pedestal.  

 

I found the narrative of Pete the most interesting – he seems to really understand Lanny and Pete’s unbridled joy at Lanny and their friendship is what gives the novel so much warmth – and it’s in Pete’s narrative that Porter brings the most art to his description:  “Palette-knife smear of bad weather rush past the window”. Thanks to Pete, we judge the other characters by their treatment of Lanny. From his Dad, we see the minutiae of commuter life, of a father who is irritated by his son’s oddity – and we dislike him for it. However, his Dad also dislikes himself for his reaction and is made more human as a result – which allows us to empathise. For how often have we ignored the beauty of the world around us in our pursuit of something else? How many times have we dismissed a curious wonder or thought for its silliness? How would we have reacted if our son asked us “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?”

 

Lanny is an odd child, who loves nature, who sings to himself and sees the world in a childish, innocent way, full of wonder. His mother says “I can’t imagine this boy becoming a man” and the first section paints the picture of an idyllic young man, loved by all despite his oddity for his grace and kindness. However, as the novel progresses, Lanny starts talking more and more about Dead Papa Toothwort and a feeling of something sinister begins to grow. His dreams become more disturbing and his parents wake to the sensation of someone in their house. Dead Papa Toothwort in the third person is unsettling – and he begins to hatch a plan  for a “terrible thing” Lanny’s mum has a recollection of hacking a dying hedgehog apart with a carving knife.

 

The second part becomes even more fractured, Lanny’s Mum observing herself, creating a distance between events and the reader like we’re watching – like she’s watching a film play out. The use of I jumps from character to character which is interesting to see the way in which we view events through a prism of our own expectation. As the village gets involved, the speech comes thick and fast, lots of short narratives from different points of view, a chorus of sound similar to the fractured sounds from Dead Papa Toothwort’s parts. There is lots of judgement, lots of different voices full of nasty gossip. For the rest of this section, the narrative continues in this way, piecemeal but immediate. We are granted access to what people actually mean – it’s a study in human behaviour and herd mentality.

 

The third part becomes more surreal, fusing narratives to a bittersweet conclusion. But it’s not the drive of the plot or the playfulness of the language (although this is spectacular in parts) that makes this such a special read – it’s the way in which Porter persuades us to look inside without judgment. As the novel draws to a close, we should hopefully feel changed – more curious about the world around us, more prone to innocent wonder and playful thinking – more like Lanny.

Elisabeth Horan: Odd list, Odd house, Odd me

This collection is an ode to Emily Dickinson – to her work, her themes and her poetry. In an interview with Twist in Time magazine, Horan highlights the similarities between her own work and that of Dickinson in terms of themes, but this collection isn’t simply a reflection of Dickinson’s work – in some ways, it’s an echo. In Odd list, odd house, odd me, we see the modern world through a Dickinsonian filter. 

From the opening poem, it’s clear that these poems will be heavy on female emotion “woman’s seethe”, yearning “soul less hollow” and death “a mildew stench.” The image of a “skin-wrapped present damp with a mildew stench” is unsettling – this unflinching honesty permeates the poems in the collections and placing such a disquieting image in the opening poem really sets the scene for the poems that will follow.

The second poem ‘At Night when I am alone’ is softer, full of yearning and lust with images such as “your cheek is the softest thing” giving a tenderness that brushes many of the proceeding poems. Here, the ‘you’ which is a constant throughout the collection is given a physical presence. However, despite the physicality here and in later poems such as ‘Something for to worship’  the ‘you’ is a spectral addition, never really taking a constant form. The addressee of many of these poems seems to change, which further heightens the sense of solitude and yearning as there is no anchor upon which to rest. 

From the “mildew stench” in the first poem, the image of decay runs like a seam through the collection, coming to the fore in poems such as ‘The Night Knows all my Hiding Places’ where the poet weaves together death, rot and lust in a way that feels modern yet rooted in the traditions of the past. Linking lust and nature together is a common device which is used to great effect in ‘Were I With Thee – and your Scepter’ and the wonderful ‘Amazing Grace’.

Many poems like ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Scant be the Blessings’ have a religious tint. However, although they may read a little like hymns, Horan’s skill is in weaving the formal lexicon with more modern language such as in ‘Winter Rose’, where Horan plays with punctuation to interesting effect. 

These poems are rooted in the visceral in parts. They reach out into the world. Yes, there’s introspection but it comes as part of a wider picture. There’s a lot of female anger, but like in Dickinson’s work, there’s also a tautness – in some respects created through the control brought by punctuation and the rhyme and rhythm, but also the lexicon. Some poems encompass the anger, the visceral and the control to superb effect –  like ‘Blood on Snow’ with its “taste of man/in his shell and casing”  and ‘The Son of God is my Son’ which has the fantastic image of “feel your wings/brush against my pox and/float me upon the wind.”

Nature also plays a central role and is the anchor for many of the images and the emotions. Some of my favourite poems are those with images rooted in the detail of the natural world, such as the prose poem ‘Prosegasm’, which feels very much like a modern translation of Dickinson’s work – but it’s important to remember that these poems exist on their own. They may have a filter, but they are very much their own image.

Ocean Vuong: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

I loved his poetry collection for its astonishing use of lyricism and twisting of classicalism (like in the incredible Telemachus) so I was very excited to get my hands on this. I heard him read at Toppings in Bath and knew from the short extract this was going to be something special – the delicacy of his writing and emotional suckerpunches prevalent in his poetry had translated beautifully into the prose extract he opened the reading with.

 

There are so many layers to this novel. On the surface it could be classified as a bildungsroman, exploring the relationship between mother and son, the coming of age and moving away – but it’s also about belonging, about language, about the underbelly of society that is so frequently ignored. 

 

It opens as a letter to his mother and we see the importance of language to the narrator. Language features heavily – his love for it but also how it’s a barrier for his mother. There’s a very moving scene where his mother is trying to buy oxtail and is laughed at, which galvanises him to learn it so his mother never feels so ridiculed again. 

 

It moves chronologically, and the first part of the novel takes us back to Vietnam to explore his grandmother’s story and how difficult life was for a young Vietnamese mother with a half-American child. The scene where his grandmother faces down the GIs at the entrance to her village is chilling in the minutiae of the detail – presented without judgement, without direction, we are given the poet’s viewpoint and allowed to draw our own emotions from the description.

 

As the story progresses, we see the difficulty of their relationship – but again, it’s painted without judgement. Even though some of the sections of physical violence are difficult to read, Vuong paints her as a woman in a very difficult situation, a Vietnamese immigrant scraping a living in America, unwanted, an outsider. There’s an intimacy between son and mother, the way he massages her, she flinging a bra “heavy with sweat” aside.

 

Although there are many lyrical passages, Vuong takes a different approach for some of the more important sequences. The matter-of-fact way in which his mother explains she had an abortion is shocking – as is the manner in which she accepts his homosexuality. There is no space for sentiment here – the language is brutal, functional and the impact heightened by the contrast with the lyricism that we see elsewhere.

 

The middle section of the book has his relationship with Trevor as the central focus. 14 years old, ‘Little Dog’ works on a tobacco farm and falls for Trevor, the owner’s grandson, a troubled young man with an abusive father. The physical side is explored in graphic detail. As with his relationship with his mother, there is a lot of violence here – Trevor isn’t accepting of his sexuality and the physicality is brutal. 

 

As he leaves Trevor to go to university, the snippets of philosophy begin to increase in volume. When talking about language in the early sections, he references a lot of Barthes, but after leaving Connecticut, his narrative becomes more introspective as the speaker explores his own philosophies: “I read that beauty has historically demanded replication”.

 

The later sections are much less narrative in tone or style. One of the most interesting sections is the one between last seeing Trevor and going back for his funeral. Here, the structure changes dramatically and we see the poet’s skill in using form – a collage of memories of the boy he loved tumbling on top of one another. 

 

In the last section, the speaker returns to his mother and the structure remains less narrative, more fractured thoughts, with the narrator trying to make sense of the world, translating his artist’s view for his mother in terms she can understand  “In a world myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.” We move back into narrative as his grandmother approaches death. The description of the way her blood moves from the toes as she dies is incredibly powerful.

 

The narrative tone is benign and curious  – despite the violence in the speaker’s most significant relationships, there is a lot of tenderness in his depiction of his loved ones. There’s a real sense that Vuong is trying to give the underbelly of America a voice, shine a light on those people living on the fringes and present them not as victims – or villains – but simply as they are. We see this in the way he casually mentions all of the other itinerant workers at the tobacco farm – and how they are always saying sorry. But this has also taken its toll, as we see towards the end as he discusses medication, addiction, losing friends who had no hope:

“The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine. I made them, dammit.” 

 

As Vuong moves the narrative back to the letter, we come to the climactic point – what does it mean to be a writer? ‘Little Dog’ wants his mother to understand and presents a list of responses varying in eloquence, but my favourite is this: “I made it down. That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things, the lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball.”

Bright Travellers: Fiona Benson

The debut collection from the award-winning poet was a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Deeply personal, it covers motherhood, landscape and includes a beautiful sequence of poems for Vincent Van Gogh.

The opening poem ‘Caveat’ forms an epigraph for the collection with its message that  it is possible to find the good in anything, like cacti that “harbour a moist heart”. From the outset, Benson’s style of using natural imagery to examine the human condition in fresh and unexpected ways is evident. In the first section of the collection, the poems are deeply pastoral, delving deep into the detail of the landscape and exploring the relationship between human and nature, one which can be tense and unsettled :”how will I find my way back/to the woods” in ‘Submerged Forest’, a poem which is sinister in tone, “dank, eroded beds”.

Motherhood features from the third poem ‘Cave Bear’, a beautifully lyrical piece that uses the central image of a bear corpse to explore the relationship between a mother bear and her cub.  Death – or the threat of it – features heavily in the early part of the collection in poems such as ‘Urn-burial’ and ‘Cave Bear’, culminating in the somewhat sinister ‘Devonport’, a stunning poem that examines the relationship between man and nature with its sublime lexicon of military language suffusing the description “Holstered in the Tamar/ the low-slung bolts/ of submarines come home.” Finishing with “The sea is still a torpedo-path,/ an Armageddon road”, the last poem in this section, we step out of this section uneasy.

 

The next sequence ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ contains some fascinating poems. Benson uses ekphrastic in an interesting way, with poems such as ‘Spring of Almond Blossom in a Glass’ written from the point of view of the subject. In these poems, Benson uses the art to explore the thoughts and emotions of the poet, imagining what prompted the art to be created in such a way. The two poems entitled ‘Sunflowers’ include some of the most stunning imagery: describing the petals as “a blaze” and the description of the flowers as “a long singing summer in a vase”, urging the artist to “teach me to admit/ a touch more light”. By using the second person throughout, these are deeply personal and affecting – we feel included in the conversation. There’s a melancholy here as she examines the emotional arc of the artist as she examines his body of work, with the poems becoming more depressing in tone.

Some poems stand on their own throughout the collection, such as ‘Salvage’ which forms a sort of coda between the groupings. The third ‘grouping’ of poems is very difficult with its examination of miscarriage. Again Benson weaves the natural world with personal experience to devastating effects such as in ‘Sheep’ where she describes a mother sheep standing over “her three dead lambs” as a jumping point to an exploration of her own miscarriage. The immediacy of the language here is brutally moving, devoid of imagery.

“I was afraid to look down 

For what I might see – 

A human face, a fist”

The rest of these poems in this section examine the grief “ I’ve left the shell of myself / curled up on the quilt in her own penumbra of dark” and others examine miscarriage with beautiful imagery such as in ‘Prayer’ “ Tadpole,

Stripling, elver, don’t let the dragtides

Pull you under, but root in, bed down,

Tucked behind my pelvic bone,

Rocked in the emptying stoup of my womb.”

The final sections are more joyful as Benson explores her personal experience of motherhood, describing her daughter in ‘Brew’ as a “hunched genie in the lamp of my womb”, melding the awe of birth with the visceral “out you came, cabled and wet” in ‘Childbed’. As in earlier poems, she puts the detail to the forefront, delighting the reader by hanging the detail from more unconventional images such as in ‘Cradle Cap’ where she describes her newborn to a fledgling robin “my own, small robin-in-the-moult / with your dishevelled features, ‘stuck quills”. With motherhood also comes fear and although it is not as ominous as in earlier poems, there is still an undercurrent through these later poems, such as the fear of losing a child in ‘Demeter’ “my own voice/ snags at her name like barbed wire on skin”. 

The last poem in the collection ties the themes of motherhood and landscape together, leaving the reader hanging as it finishes without punctuation: “you are the ground it falls upon” .

A stunning pamphlet by poet Mark Pajak

Spitting Distance is a Laureate’s Choice pamphlet from 2016 that I bought after hearing the poet read at an event in Bristol last year. From the moment he finished reading the first stanza of his first poem, I knew it would be special due to the concision of the language and the way in which he pairs the ordinary, everyday moments with surprising images, like “Two boys full of vodka,/ tipping side to side like flames.” in the opening poem ‘After Closing Time’ (which incidentally was the first poem he read).

Many of the poems in this pamphlet have an ominous, menacing undertone where death and danger hover just beneath the surface, rippling through the collection in poems such as ‘Spitting Distance’ about the ingestion of a bullet, ‘Thin’ about the ravaged remains of a starving dog and ‘Sweet’ about the death of a young drug user through the sting of a wasp. These poems are visceral in their content, made even more so by the lyricism of their delivery 

“A yellow grape

fresh-picked and still warm from the sun,

its stalk pinning the boy’s breath

to the throat, the raw strawberry muscle.”

There’s a tenderness here, in the use of “boy” and in the softness of imagery such as the sun-warmed grape that only adds to the brutality of the reality in these poems. ‘Into the Mudflats’ is a sublime example of this, a longer poem that conjures the devastating image of a drowning girl: “She just stood there / a stencil on the wet shine”

This use of the unexpected to create imagery is evident throughout the pamphlet, from the tender “we lay like hands held in one pocket” in ‘Camping on Arran, 1992’ to “the air I drank/ cold as if from a night-chilled glass” in ‘Known in Passing’, a sublime poem that finishes with the beautiful 

“…And when my biting

teeth released the red leaf of my tongue,

my mouth filled with autumn.”

There’s an immediacy in the personal elements of this collection of poems, with many references to family members and childhood memories, all interlaced with the same imaginative language and voice which keeps them open and lingering in the mind after reading.

Olivia Laing’s To the River – A Midsummer meander

Laing’s To the River is a travelogue of sorts as the writer sets out on a midsummer morning to walk the banks of the River Ouse from source to sea. Peppered with memories of a failed relationship, this is a journey through memory, not just hers but those of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, whose diaries she refers to frequently. It’s very much in the vein of Seband’s The Rings of Saturn but with less spiralling into tangents and much more lyricism.

It’s beautifully written, with the descriptions of the natural world incredibly detailed in a way that brings the countryside to life. What really makes the prose sing are the fresh and unexpected comparisons she draws: “The water pleated as the carp sank and climbed”, “…the air seemed to have set like jelly, quivering as I pressed against it.” and “The fields rising like foam.”

Each chapter is roughly divided into sections of the river and the narrative moves from day to day, spanning around a week. Each section of the river correlates to another story, another narrative and, much like in The Lonely City, Laing explores the character behind the figures, ranging from Gideon Martell and his archaeological discoveries to Kenneth Grahame and the motivations behind The Wind in the Willows. As befitting a narrative based on the River Ouse, Laing lingers a lot over the Woolfs and their story, but she also draws on the story of Iris Murdoch who lived in the area. These biographical segments are not just the relation of a well-worn narrative, but the examination of the ways in which the world has influenced these writers who have had such an influence on the writer herself: “Water, in Woolf’s personal lexicon, represented a way of slipping the superficial self.” However, it’s not just recent, literary history – there’s also an extensive narrative on Simon de Montford and the medieval battles of the area.

One of the elements I took most from was the explanation of the etymologies of the language we use to describe the natural world, as Laing explains that “the source of the word ‘Ouse’  is generally supposed to be usa, the Celtic word for water, but i favoured the argument, this being a region on Anglo-Saxon settlement, that here it was drawn from the Saxon word wāse, from which derives also our word ooze” and, similarly fascinating, “The word hell comes from the Anglo-Saxon helan, meaning to hide; it is related to hole and hollow”

This etymological exploration is paired with a questioning of the notion of religious faith prompted by the commentary on Bede’s writing which engenders a philosophical pondering on the nature of life and the power of the natural world “What is one to make of this great weight of waters? Though they are beautiful, they carry with them the risk of annihilation too.” It is this personal touch that makes this such a thought-provoking read. Water becomes its own character as Laing explores her own fascination with it: “Sometimes, moving through water, I feel I’m washed of all thoughts, all desires… there have been times when, sunk in a river or a chalky sea, i have felt the past rise up upon me like a wave.”

As I came to the close of the book, I felt as bereft as Laing did as she begins to re-enter the world at the end of her journey: “I looked across the reeds to where the ruins [the shattered remains of Tide Mills] were and saw an ominous glitter.” But, like the writer, I felt both inspired and calmed in the face of the world and also glad that: It’s a mercy that time runs in one direction only, that we see the past but darkly and the future not at all.”

 

Underland by Robert MacFarlane – a fascinating passage into the underworlds.

Described by the Guardian as” A dazzling journey into deep time” this is a story about the worlds underground, which seems naturally more sinister in tone than his other books – perhaps because of the connotations with death, Hades and the spectres that haunt the underworld.

It delves deep, both physically and metaphorically. This is a book about deep time, the ways in which we bury our secrets, our past and our dead.

Divided into three sections: Seeing (Britain); Hiding (Europe) and Haunting (The North), with each break filled by a coda of sorts entitled burial Chamber 1, 2 or 3, MacFarlane’s book takes us on a journey across continents as he delves under the surface of our world. Even the structure of the book follows the path of our ancestors rituals with the dead – which makes it all the more fitting that the very first chapter is about Burial, as we journey with the writer and the poet Sean Borodale deep into the caving systems of the Mendip hills in the South West. 

The style of this chapter is echoed through the text – in almost every chapter we’re guided around with the writer as other individuals – some old friends, some experts in their field, impart their knowledge and observations about the worlds we inhabit. Like his other books, I came away with this with pages of notes on things I’d learned and things I plan on researching further, like the ways in which trees communicate with one another through the ‘Wood Wide Web’ and the science behind glaciology. 

Although it’s packed with fascinating snippets of information and many references to other pieces of literature, it’s also stylistically ‘moreish’, with MacFarlane’s lyrical prose an absolute delight. We are making this journey with him, receptacles for his personal experience. Many of the journeys, although beautiful, are terrifying in parts – particularly the navigating of the city underneath the streets of Paris, a symbol of rebelliousness and danger which almost kills him.  “I am in a vertical shaft and above me is a suspended wall of clay and earth, perhaps ten feet high, into which hundreds of human bones are embedded.”

“Fear slithers up my spine, spills greasy down my throat. Nothing for it but to follow. I lie flat, loop pack to foot, edge in head first. The clearance above is so tight that I again have to turn my skull sideways to proceed.”

The use of this extremely personal narrative voice gives pace and depth to the text, engaging the reader as we delight in the explorations. 

This is more a book about our relationship with the world, each adventure a jumping point for a more advanced commentary.  It’s a fitting book for our time, as it becomes increasingly more concerned with our relationship with the world around us. In the exploration of the starless rivers that are carved through the Julian Alps, MacFarlane relates how the karst landscape became the burial ground and hiding place for the bodies of those murdered in WWII. We are taken to ‘Hiding Place’ in Finland, where high-level nuclear waste is to be deposited, where a tomb is being built as an experiment of post-human architecture. One of the most moving sections of the book is where he visits Kollhellaren, the site of cave paintings in Norway, a place described as one of the thinnest between epochs where MacFarlane is overcome by the emotion of being in such a place where “Here in the shadows, space and time spill into one another.” 

The glaciers in Greenland are so magnificent, they get two chapters. Ice is the star here, described in such detail, its beauty, its power and how it holds the secrets of the past “Ice has a memory. It remembers in detail and it remembers for a million years or more…Ice has been consistent in its technology over millions of years…” I found this the most interesting exploration – perhaps because I’ve never seen a glacier but have always been fascinated by the idea of ice and what it buries. The notion of how “the colour of deep ice is blue – the blue of time” left me reeling for a while. 

It seems very fitting then that the book ends by allowing us to come up for air, with the last chapter entitled ‘Surfacing’. Here, MacFarlane is back home with his son, exploring the spot where nine springs flow from the bedrock. The final lines are of human contact, as he puts his palm to that of his son, marking how “his skin strange as stone against mine.”, an image that recalls the depths of time in the book – the world carved out in rock underneath us, the cave paintings in Norway and the explorations of Parisian catacombs. We are all connected by our past which lies in the rock underneath our feet.

 

Wood Bee Poet

Poems, thoughts...etc.

The Pledge

Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon

Nicola Heaney

Writer & Poet

Freefall

'She would say to discover / the true depth of a well, / drop a stone, / start counting.' - Andrew Greig