Going deeper

Skinning the Bull
, John Daniel (51pp, £8.00, Oversteps Books)
Playing for Time, Jane Spiro (51pp, £8.00, Oversteps Books)

One of the first things that struck me on reading John Daniel's most recent poetry collection was the number of fish I encountered:


     I love you when you watch fish,
     giggling at the huge snouty one
     that never ventures out of its hole,
     other uglies you think could be me,
     wrestling with an octopus, oohing and aahing
     at silver shoals flying over the reef,
     the white and orange fish-clowns
     that live among poisonous tentacles,
     the sardine-balls chased by the sailfish,
     cheering on gudgeon-like creatures
     that crawl up the cliff to reach paradise,
     laughing uproariously as schools of green tiddlers
     surround the grey hippopotamus, hoovering his hide,
     nibbling the armoured plates of his arse.

He's obviously been watching a natural history programme and jointly revelling in biodiversity and in the strange behaviours of the undersea world, something I often do as well, so I'm immediately in tune with the piece and on his side. This poem could be said to be typical of a 'John Daniel' poem - insofar as you can ever say such a thing - in that it combines curiosity with playfulness and an unexpected and arresting final line, humorous in this case though not always so. 'Aquarium at Barcelona' is a little different, hinting towards the slightly experimental, still observing fish in a slightly less 'virtual' geography where the 'protagonist' feels more connected to the environment he is describing in a somewhat cool but curious 'Ballardian' manner:

     These cinema screens,
     moving staircases, the shark overhead
     growing its teeth like unwrapping steel,
     the sea bass turning and turning
     while far below
     a moray eel stalks a tabby cat,
     (the Romans used their poison against people).

     God's doing this, no doubt about it.
     Darwin and God, the two of them,
     dancing in darkness and out of the sea,
     up the beach, the brain a squashed matchbox,
     the aeroplane shark flying over my head
     turning me upside down
     to the depths where I'm born.
          (extracts from 'Aquarium at Barcelona')

As I'm gisting this piece I can't help seeing and hearing John read it aloud, to an audience, building in intensity and delivering key lines with a suitable sense of humorous discard, bathos or in the role of 'information-giver', wherever appropriate.It's a neat poem, with an introductory stanza, a somewhat more strange and dislocated centrepiece and a conclusion which is slightly baffling yet very satisfying.

Formal poems - a sonnet or two, likewise a sestina - collide with more free-form verses and there is a neat play on the prose-poem, funnily enough entitled 'Prose-poem: a definition'. Despite being a scholarly chap, John is always on the lookout for pretentiousness in art and this piece steers a good line between entertainment, critique and bedevilled bafflement.

                       The poem is one-sided and gives itself capital airs,
     prose is an impossible document covering a million pages. A
     prose-poem knows its limitations. Poetry is milk, prose is
     cheese. A prose-poem is on the way to becoming a yoghurt. A
     prose-poem has a story to tell but not a long one. It knows
     when to shut up.
          (from 'Prose-poem: a definition')

Daniel covers a vast range of subject matter in this collection, from varieties of art (the hilarious 'Surreal' for example), to aspects of war, to gardening, the natural world in all its glories (including plenty of fish in all sorts of strange situations) through childhood reminiscence and an extremely offbeat poem based around 17th century voyeurism in Totnes, entitled 'Documentary evidence'. I was particularly taken with his short 'pirate poem':

     The seven seas

     The seaweed lies slumped
     on the beach:
     cat o' nine tails dumped
     from the ships that have sailed away
     with their captains, capstans and cannon,
     canvas, compasses, cockroaches,
     over the seven seas.

which neatly encapsulates a whole history of storytelling, imagination and nostalgia in seven lines.


There's also a strong visual sense evident in these poems and it's no surprise to discover that John Daniel is a painter. The cover pastel, which refers to the title poem, is reminiscent of Soutine.

Jane Spiro's poems are deeper than they appear on a first reading and there's a gradual progression in her first collection towards a darker sense of history which is nevertheless expressed through a reading of individual lives. Her experience as a language teacher also infiltrates these poems and there's a constant sense of  movement, between the here and now and the then and there, where echoes of different times and places are foregrounded in the present moment:

     I am not of this place
     where I hear from the dockland workers
     language stolen from nursery rhymes,
     from half-remembered stories, prayers
     that found new tongues, started again.
          (from 'Return to the first language')

While there's an increasing sense of dislocation and fragmentation in these poems the mood is often one of an ambiguous relation to childhood memories where recollection and 'remembering' can be a source of both intense joy and a more shadowy, unrecoverable aspect.  The sestina 'Grandfather cut glass' tends towards the more positive end of this spectrum and has an almost cubist overview in its descriptive onrush:

     light refracted through glass, blue-red-yellow
     partly-seen children, corridors through whirlpool reds
     in kaleidoscope whorls, number sixes with ash,
     silver putty edges, spaniel faces in blue-glow through glass
     all made by you, your large hands
     that held ice-creams. ÉÉ.

     Because of all this, the first poem I ever wrote was
     for you - the killing ash, the first yellow - childhood
     your hands made red-glow, magic glimpsed through glass.
          (from 'Grandfather cut glass')

'Forbidden city - Warsaw 1938; Warsaw 1998' hints more strongly at family history and the cataclysmic events of WW2 yet remains firmly in the present, while earlier, more pastoral-based poems such as 'Wild flowers elegy' (almost a song) and 'Company of cows' (capturing the moment - evocative and endearing) are descriptive and precise, beautifully put-together pieces which are succinct and stand alone.

The subject matter of 'The new machine -
Kilmainham jail, Dublin 1868', is
that of the introduction of the camera in relation to identifying and 'capturing' criminals and it's a poem which as well as pointing towards increasing surveillance in contemporary times, hints at the darker subject of physiognomy, or telling the nature of a person by his or her countenance, a contentious enough subject even in the nineteenth century.

The title poem - 'Playing for time' - remains the darkest and most powerful piece in this impressive collection and relates to a father's love of music and the piano, amid a backdrop of human violence and totalitarianism:

     Its voluptuous curves, shining smile,
     banged against walls, outswept arms
     clawed the bony bars of banisters,
     punched at closed windows

     and then, its hungry ivory gnashing at air,
     was demoted to the street, shuffled out,
     a failure to fit.

     We learn not to long for
     things, to forget them
     since they forget us -

     not to long for
     places we once sang,
     spread under our hands,
     felled with hammers.
          (from 'Playing for time')

The cover painting by Michael Harvey is a neat 1930's style pastiche, which on this occasion entirely suits the italicised title.

         © Steve Spence 2015