Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Christopher MiddletonNotes on a Viking Prow
(PN Review 10)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Lehbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This review is taken from PN Review 226, Volume 42 Number 2, November - December 2015.

Cover of Twentyone Men and a GhostCover of Tenants
Alison BrackenburyWill It Work? Matthew Sweeney, Twentyone Men and a Ghost (Smith/Doorstop) £5.00
Frank Koenegracht, Selected Poems, trans. Sarah Hart & Koenraad Kuiper, (Cold Hub Press) NZ $19.50
Jenny King, Tenants (Smith/Doorstop) £5.00
Victoria Kennefick, White Whale (Southword Editions) £8.00
Virginia Astley, The Curative Harp (Southword Editions) £8.00

Twenty-one poems, all about men (and one ghost). Will it work? I approached Matthew Sweeney’s pamphlet as nervously as if it were a (cruelty-free) rodeo. But Sweeney stays on board. Here is the ‘Tall Man’:
A huge russet horse came round the corner
at a gallop, and barely stopped at the man
who put a pointy toe in a stirrup, and
hauled himself into the saddle.

Sweeney, a superb storyteller, does not distract by surface show. His lines look bare, but are a joy to read aloud. Sounds work, like muscles under polished skin, in the silky ‘s’ of ‘russet’ and ‘horse’, in the hoof-sharp ‘c’ of ‘came’ and ‘corner’. Then comes the flourish, the casual grace of the ‘pointy toe’. This is masterly. And we still have eighteen men (and the ghost) to go, through curt couplets, breakneck longer lines, and snatches of song.

Imagination can run wild in Sweeney’s poems. His ‘Fat Man’ sports a ‘purple silk toga’. But, shrewdly, he also scoops a sentence from workaday speech: ‘Ah, he’s something, that blind man.’ These poems are not freak shows; rather, Sweeney suggests, an ‘alternative autobiography’. Endearingly, almost every man has an animal familiar: ‘his friend, the orang-outan’. And who but Sweeney, aided by wisps of rhyme, could make a fairy story familiar? ‘They’d dance right through / his held-out hand / as if they were creatures / of smoke or wind.’ I hope that, like his Ghost, Sweeney is ‘staying on’ to dazzle us with more work.

In ‘Susanne Takes You Down…’ Frank Koenegracht offers undazzled reflections on Leonard Cohen’s work: ‘you are on the bottle / dear alcoholic nightingale / of water and beautiful hair. ’
Omdat je aan de drank bent
lieve alcoholische nachtegaal
van water and mooi haar

The English clearly respects the lines’ integrity, with glimmers of music. (Does Susanne sound more ‘beautiful’ in the Dutch word ‘mooi’, pronounced ‘moy’?) What is not lost in these compelling translations is the work’s outspoken bleakness.

Koenegracht (the author of eight poetry collections), born at the end of World War Two, ‘practised as a psychiatrist for forty years’. Do these facts shadow his Selected Poems’ partisans and insomniacs? But professional knowledge may work strangely into poems. Koenegracht’s straightforward ‘Sleeping is the best you can do’ is followed by a thought-provoking twist: ‘People who clutch too many truths / to themselves do not sleep.’ Subjects are often viewed with a forensic coolness: ‘dead as an ant / on a stair-carpet’.

The selection has uplifting moments: ‘The cheerful side of bin bags / is sometimes forgotten.’ Koenegracht is capable of whimsical extravagance, as the bin bags become ‘so many Nepalese princes along / the pavement’. In the pamphlet’s final poem, a firing squad, which has asked ‘all kinds of questions’, apparently leaves without a shot, when its captain warns ‘it is already getting / dark’. The unarmed reader, too, may be moved to wider understanding (and involuntary compassion) by the sorrows and darknesses of Koenegracht’s own work.

Jenny King’s new pamphlet, Tenants, follows a first pamphlet published in 1981, although poems have appeared in the meantime in magazines and anthologies. Her work is often warmly appealing. Tenants opens with the speaker’s mind ‘unrolling’ through time: ‘at once I’m five, / playing in the garden with toy animals’. But King’s explorations of the past can lay bare complexity and pain. The child’s new twin siblings are ill. ‘My jealousy caused that.’

Days later it’s dark.
I’m in the armchair trying to cuddle
the fierce blue rabbit. The twins have died.
Guilty, I clutch its unloved head […]

King’s work, like Koenegracht’s, is overshadowed by the ‘war’s end’, although windows are ‘no longer blacked-out’. Her view of history can be humble and humorous: ‘you begin on peace / like a favourite pudding’. This winning combination of a child’s directness and an adult’s wisdom quietly leads the reader to a harder focus: ‘Peace […] cold and necessary like milk’. Daily detail, in King’s poems, can reveal huge change: ‘At our next school […] quiet men from big new dairies’.

Tenants casts a powerful light into the past of others, the illiterate ‘packmen’ ‘traipsing through bog cotton, / its white fluff up to the pony’s hocks’. But in the present, unshowy rhyme and tripping rhythms skilfully and simply present a morning of profound, unspecified grief: ‘already it’s too early for the shop’. Jenny King’s lightness of touch, in intensely moving poems, may owe much to her own work’s long history.

Victoria’s Kennefick’s pamphlet, White Whale, includes an intriguing poem about daily work in Moscow: ‘35,000 stray dogs commute, / pant out time, never miss their stop.’ As a scientist observes: ‘our first bones found in Russia, 35,000 years old. / A dog for every year.’ The poem finds its own precise stop.

Kennefick’s work in White Whale, as in many first collections, is still uneven. But I very much admired her sharp observation of lost love: ‘I never imagined’ the engravings ‘I encouraged you to purchase’

would end up six years later
in your airy Dublin apartment.

The one you share with your Canadian girlfriend.

Kennefick, at her best, can build a poem powerfully, with a generous use of space and a deeply considered sense of finality: ‘The ocean takes us all, / the sky too, / on reflection.’ I look forward to reading more of her work.

The Curative Harp, Virginia Astley’s debut collection, includes work as absorbing as Sweeney’s, with shifts from humour into darkness: ‘How did I ever think this would be ok? […] your sister has married my ex […] But the last time I was in this house / I can hardly speak, the last time / was the day we buried you.’

Astley also works as a musician. Her poems register her sensitivity to sound, as in the rising hiss of sibilance in ‘Night Rain’: ‘sensing static travelling the valley / until white noise surrounds the house’. Her work can carry the charge of sexuality, most shockingly in an account of failed seduction by a teacher. Here, disapproval of his music – ‘horrible slurring jazz’ – is as strong as distaste for ‘your beard, your heavy body’.

There is a tenderer sensuousness in the wild vowels of ‘Kelmscott’: ‘your / new-washed hair caught in the flare of May’. Astley’s work, in one slim pamphlet, voices rhapsody, despair and mature contemplation: ‘some things I have broken can be fixed’.

I closed this pamphlet sadly, as if a song had ended too soon, with ‘notes of eglantine, like sweet apples, / hanging in the ionized air’. ‘Eglantine’ (an archaic name for a rose) and ‘ionized’, (a scientific term) are words I have not heard in recent poetry. Their use is justified for the simplest reason. In the intense and compelling poems of Virginia Astley’s first collection, fresh as notes freed from a tune, her words work.

This review is taken from PN Review 226, Volume 42 Number 2, November - December 2015.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to
Further Reading: Alison Brackenbury Picture of Alison Brackenbury More Reviews by... (30) Report by... (1) Poems by... (40) Articles by... (5) Interview with... (1)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image