IN THIS POST Kairos Press: Morelle Smith; Cultured Llama: Gordon Meade and Douglas Robertson; Altaire: The Antigone Poems; Rack Press: Four New Booklets
Morelle Smith, Every Shade of Blue. Kairos Press, Fountainhall, Galashiels
An outstanding book by poet and travel writer Morelle Smith, whose every book is both poetic and different. This one is to my mind her best. The book is in memory of her close companion John Renbourne the musician, with whom she travelled to gigs throughout Scotland, England, Europe and America. Earlier in 2015, John died suddenly, and in this book published at the end of that year, Morelle puts together a number of travel notes and essays which must have been already part written, creating a coherent spiritual memoir of the life of two artists, in words, in music, in appreciation of visual beauty and painting, and a world seen as a background to their artistic experiences.
Simple driving, travel and hotel adventures are interspersed with philosophical and spiritual digressions and essays, all blending into the narrative and stemming from it. Morelle and John sitting at either end of a long table in a castle in France, he composing music and she writing. An incident on a Northumberland beach when car keys were lost against falling darkness and an incoming tide. They were found, and John was the right person to have lost them with and found them with, because he would have laughed, he would have known what to do, and because he laughed too when they were found. A sudden confession of her diverse, largely feminist literary influences, “the last writer I read and really liked” then detailing Stevie Smith, Rosamond Lehmann, Anais Nin, Janet Frame, but also she says, she could “squeeze in” Camus, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Herman Hesse, Neil Gunn, Henry Miller, and, well, others. Scattered through the book, many snapshot photos of John, and a few of Morelle’s own poems in context.
I love a book that goes its own way and refuses to follow convention. It is much more likely thus to have real structure and freshness, immediacy and literary value, and this is one of these books.
Gordon Meade and Douglas Robertson. Les Animots: A Human Bestiary. 68 species described with black and white drawings. Cultured Llama Publishing, 2015
The Antigone Poems. Poems by Marie Slaight. Drawings by Terrence Tasker. Australia, Altaire, 2014
Despite the second of these books being a 2014 publication, both were sent for review at the same time and they seem to match in kind and intention. Both are in equal part the production of an artist and a poet. The Antigone Poems were written in Canada and illustrated in Australia, while Les Animots began with Gordon Meade’s poems, written mainly in Scotland, and were illustrated by Douglas Robertson in Hampshire. In both cases the involvement of the artist came from friendship and interest in the work – not from any official pairing of artist and writer by nanny arts organisations.
The Antigone book goes back a long way. The full page dramatic drawings, mainly of theatre masks, were completed by 1992 when the artist Terrence Tasker died, while the poetry was written between 1972 and 1981. That’s quite an achievement for spinning out the composition of what is basically a minimalist “short long poem.” It’s a handsome large paperback on good art paper with plenty of white space, and it’s heartening to see that someone cared enough about it over time and in the face of relative lack of notice, to turn it into a book. People working in and for poetry really do care about poems that come their way.
Much the same operates with Les Animots, except that the poet and the artist were friends in Dundee, both hailing from Scotland, and Gordon Meade’s poems, published in various books and journals over the last some years, had closed in more and more on the theme of animals, and his dry, witty style was becoming well known, at any rate in Scotland. Meanwhile, Meade had migrated to Essex to work, and his meeting up with Robertson in the South led to this collaboration. Meade has now seen sense and returned to Fife, while Robertson has also become known for his collaborative work with another Scottish poet, Donald S Murray.
Robertson’s style here, which look as if it is pencilled, suits the stark understatement of the poems very well. There is a chill in some of the poems, like the Dingo, which ends:
just the other day
a family was, thirty years too late
for them, found innocent of the murder
of their daughter in the bush.
The illustrator responds to this with humour, sometimes a black humour like the dead moles strung on barbed wire a page or two later in the book.
Meade is fastidious about the layout of his poems, and the double page opening is handled well in the positioning of many of these illustrations
Gordon Meade’s animal poems stand up to re-reading and are worthy of being put together in a good looking book. From the first lines of the first poem,
Snake is rattling
And that in itself
Should be taken as a warning
to the conclusion of the last, about Kingfisher, the work is assured, engaging and complete. Well done to Cultured Llama of Medway for what I know has been a determined and committed production.
It is a pity we have such a stultified publishing infrastructure that an attractive and basically saleable book like this one cannot be published in substantial numbers in a highly visible edition.
Rack Press: John Greening, Nebamun’s Tomb; Martina Evans, Watch; Andrew McCulloch, Strange, Such Strength; Eve Grubin, The House of our First Loving. All 2016
Well known for its innovative, short-length, up to the minute pamphlets, Rack Press has a lively list of some forty poets, including these four. They are gender balanced and arguably slightly Londoncentric (though only slightly is better than some publishers manage). This time, none of the poets is particularly young or “new”.
There are too many accolade notices on most poetry blurbs, and with pamphlets it is particularly important to be concise. Readers might have five minutes to consider buying the booklet. Why distract them with quotes from John Fuller or Bernard O’Donoghue? We know the quotes are going to be complimentary, it’s as though a publisher needs someone else to corroborate his/her choice. If we are to get anywhere with the public for lesser known poets, we need readers to be encouraged to make up their own minds: not “Buy this because Mark Doty approves of it.” If they happen not to know of Mark Doty they’ll be even further flummoxed.
Simply designed with modest runs of 150 copies, they are a good buy at £5 each and perhaps buyers will trust Rack Press enough to buy them all. Then they’ll find they have favourites. Mine (of these 4) is John Greening’s Nebamun’s Tomb. Perhaps this is hard on the others because John Greening is easily the most considerable and most published of these writers. He has (in the credits) the best publications list and awards list and the least extravagant claims from supporters. Additionally his work here has a theme, which is somewhere we are definitely going in poetry. His poems are highly re-readable. They don’t tell you enough, but get you interested in old Salt and the Egyptian relics in the British Museum. It’s a sequence of 11 shortish, vari-form and image-filled poems, linking London and Egypt. It is, imo, the best title and has the best subject matter of the four.
A problem of producing booklets in batches of four is that they will be compared with each other, and generally, poets are not “comparable”, they are extremely individualistic. Or should be. Too much insistence on fashion, on schools, on competitions, makes them less so. By their fruits ye shall know them.