Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge ed. by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee & Siobhan Logan

Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Over Land, Over Sea is a timely and generous publication (the proceeds from sales go towards a Refugee Forum and Médecins Sans Frontières), exploring what it means to lose your home and to be forced to flee a conflict that has obliterated the concept of living safely in the country of your birth. The contributors range from well-established poets to those at the start of their career, from migrants themselves to those who have campaigned or raised funds on their behalf. When poetry is written for a worthy social cause, there is a different, more focused, level of engagement with content. The anthology’s netting of such a disparate constellation of voices is part of its cumulative power.

Some poems communicate that vibrating force of fear which triggers the compulsion to flee, and remains buried in the body. It becomes a muscle memory, waking at night, stirring old fears in the stomach and pumping them to the heart: ‘jittery and wired to the scroll of scouring jets…’ (Roy Marshall, ‘Hayride’) ‘The smell is of sweat and fear and no sign of a toilet.’ (Joan Byrne ‘In truth I was afraid’); ‘clutching their hands on their hearts’ (Andy N, ‘Breathing from a Permanent Home’); ‘He wakes on the floor of his room…sweat…on his brow’ (Chrissie Gittins, ‘No Further’).

This is why the word ‘refuge’ is so important: it represents both physical and psychological safety, a sense of peace. As Mahendra Solanki puts it: ‘we seek comfort in this pull of green’ (‘from The Riverside Commission’).

While uneven in terms of craft and poetic quality, the diversity of approaches and attitudes, of time frames and variations of migration, is exciting. A refugee runs ‘across continents / over rivers / through forests / through deserts / and through tunnels’, prompting, not the expected compassion or fear, but inspiration, for Ambrose Musiyiwa. Kerry Featherstone inhabits the voice of a mother to prompt empathy, but also hints at darkness: ‘Here is my son, Aymal, /who must keep bloody secrets.’ Sally Jack acknowledges individual refugees by name: ‘Tarek’s false leg gives him pain but Tomas offers a ride on his bicycle. //Amira’s feet are bleeding, Sayid gives her his trainers.’

Truths are told of an inadequate official response to the crisis. Peter Wyton highlights the bitter irony of authorities belatedly naming an abandoned newborn: ‘There is a procession in his honour. …Callum …is in his rightful place, at the forefront of the whole assembly, carried by a single undertaker.’ (‘Callum’s Day’)

Gregory Woods marks moments of a refugee’s life in twelve stark and poignant tercets:

He takes to languages
like landscapes: in each
a job, a girl, a question.

(‘Life History’)

Other poets approach the situation from the point of view of the receiving country. Ken Evans points out that if someone starts a sentence with ‘I’m not racist but…’ the only response is to ‘turn and refuse to accept that caveat.’ (‘Citizens’) Lydia Towsey apologises for those who are unwelcoming to the refugees, with a razor-sharp reminder of sins of the past:

Slip your shoes off,
take this blanket
it’s the least that we can do.

I am sorry for our manners,
when we visited you last
the mess we left

(‘Come In’)

Several poems refer to the photograph of Aylan Kurdi:

I just wanted you to know
your lovely bones have not been wasted

writes Laura Taylor poignantly in ‘Aylan’. Danielle Hope’s ‘Exodus’ lists the names of vessels and ends with the evocative line ‘Empty shoes carpet the sea.’

In a more slant approach, Chrissie Gittins describes jars of Elsinore strawberries, which hang ‘in their syrup / like air balloons in a red sky’, confiscated from her rucksack at the airport:

I hadn’t lost my clothes, I hadn’t lost
my childhood in photographs,
I hadn’t lost my country.
And still it cuts me to the quick.

(‘Frontiers’)

I relate to the concrete and individual, rather than the abstract, amorphous multitude. Reading personal narratives gives a jolt of recognition and connection. Sally Flint’s ‘We Arrive By Truck’ contains many vivid images that will pierce mothers in particular: ‘That’s not kohl around her eyes; it’s dark tracks of sleeplessness’; and ‘She knows she should give her infant water, /but the orphan children who drank /from the river all disappeared.’

The most interesting poems approach the current refugee crisis from an alternative or lateral viewpoint. Rory Waterman uses juxtaposition and perspective to startling effect: ‘…on the verge of silence. / A butterfly bounced across. A plane hit a mountain / but slid out the other side like a threaded needle.’ (‘Ave Maria’) The bright, singular quality of these paired images, that endorphin-like impact, which strikes like a happy blow on the head, makes us believe the simile is simple, but like the best moments in poetry, it exceeds logic.

Another poet who layers images interestingly is Ammar Bin Hatim, war ‘exhibiting its ugly boobs like disfigured whore.’ He addresses the virtual Norman:

‘We are very similar my friend
we both put a red novel and a grenade in our khaki bag,
we both can’t look at dead cats and we are asked to Fight!
Have you heard, Norman?
The crash of ribs under that crazy tank!!

(‘Me and War’)

In Jasmine Heydari’s powerful poem, ‘The first time…mother decorated the windows of our rooms with / a duck-tape in the shape of the letter X /was the day of my fifth birthday’. Later, the first word she writes beginning with W is ‘war’ (‘The First Time’).

There are some poems that make effective use of form. Rod Duncan’s ‘but one country’ dramatically uses the speculum form to subvert the viewpoint offered in the first stanza. Daniel O’Donnell-Smith also plays with variations of a single sentence to present disconcerting conclusions. (‘and the sea did give up those dead in it’). David Belbin’s redacted poem, ‘From a North Atlantic Island’ uncomfortably communicates both resistance and a hesitant guilt.

Marilyn Ricci compares the current refugee plight with the Irish exodus after the famine: ‘uncle Mick and aunty Mary …bawling out the songs in the Emerald Club, though they wouldn’t go back, not now.’ Mariya Pervez reminds us of the first white lab mouse to be sent to the moon, that ‘Died in the rocket, a pocket-sized / Martyr to the cause of discovery’ (‘The Whiteness’). Also venturing space-wards, George Symonds considers future migration: ‘they’re coming over here, and taking our space/say the stars, the planets/the moons and supernovas’. Siobhan Logan, on the other hand, harks back, to the very first nomads, driven on by ‘scouring hunger’ and ‘desert winds’ who found themselves at the shore of the great water, the point from which, we are told in a footnote, our earliest human ancestors embarked to leave Africa:

When a sharp-eyed hunter spied land over there
we began to think
how to reach this new place, how to put
ourselves into the water.

(‘The Gate of Grief’, or Bab-al-Mandab, Red Sea)

This same apprehension is conveyed in Rose Scooler’s poem, translated by Sibyl Ruth, which rings with a heart-wrenching authenticity:

Almost we’d begun to feel that life in the camp was safe.
Now the way ahead’s unclear…nobody knows what’s going on outside;
where our families are, if loved ones have been spared.
We have become weak. The very thought of being told
our future makes us tremble. We are that scared.

(‘Goodbye to Theresienstadt’)

What marks the anthology for the most part, is a relational vibration, a sense of community, rather than a differentiated ‘they’ or ‘we’. Through an assembly of voices and pluralities of experience, resonances are triggered: above all, this anthology is about connection. Tania Hershman uses the theory of relativity to show how:

we are all bound I nudge space
you
are shifted

(‘Relativity)

I hope Over Land, Over Sea gains a wide readership, and achieves just that.

A Candle to Light you to Bed: Four Candlestick Press Pamphlets

Reviewed by Angela Topping

Ten Sonnets by William Shakespeare
Ten Poems about Babies
Ten Poems about Knitting
Ten Bedtime Poems (Volume 2)

Candlestick Press produce stunning and elegant pamphlets, many with a single image in the centre of a colour block, so they are instantly recognisable. The covers are sturdy, thick card and the pamphlets have a sense of the hand-bound book about them. In a brilliant marketing idea, the press managed to get these lovely things stocked in many retail outlets, like chain bookshops, who are normally extremely wary of poetry. The marketing idea? Package them with an envelope and a bookmark and label them ‘instead of a card’. Cards are a terrible price these days for something which many people discard a few days after the occasion, and for a couple more pounds, to purchase and post with a normal first class stamp, such a beautiful collectible is an absolute no-brainer. It is a great way of smuggling poetry, like a mind-enhancing drug, into the lives of people who are not currently ‘users’ or to give as a small gift to anyone who is.

Because of the nature of the product, the pamphlets often include very well known classic poems, which sit well with contemporary ones, in a desire to offer the very best poems on the chosen topic. Often the selection is made by a guest editor, another great idea.

I am a big fan of Shakespeare’s sonnets, so was intrigued to see which had been chosen from the 154 in Ten Sonnets by William Shakespeare – no mean feat to whittle those down, I suspect. The cover is a pretty print reminiscent of Tudor style; the introduction acknowledges the difficulty of the task. The approach is to choose love poems which create an interior narrative, and include very well known ones such as ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’. I am a little disappointed that my favourite two sonnets are not included (‘That time of day thou mayst in me behold’ and ‘They that have pow’r to hurt and will do none’), but as a taster for the whole set, these are good choices, and I can see why the two really well known ones are here: they offer some familiarity to the reader for whom the full 154 might seem daunting.

‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is often read as a poem of flattery, but closer reading shows that Shakespeare flatters no-one but himself in this poem. He claims his ‘eternal lines to time’ will make his subject immortal, but he never at any point describes the person, just his writing skill. For this reason I find this sonnet hilarious, as I do the omitted ‘My Mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, in which Petrarch’s love sonnets are lampooned. Shakespeare’s wit is one of the reasons his poems sparkle still. ‘Shall I compare thee’ sits well with the poems which precede it, which sets about persuading the listener that the only way to preserve their good looks is by having children. The octet describes the horrors of ageing, but the turn in the ninth line presents the solution, hammered home in the couplet ending:

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The coinage imagery (new made) recurs throughout the sonnets, and here presents a subtle persuasive device by linking the progeny with riches. The second poem chosen also links with the theme of time. In ‘When I do count the clock that tells the time’, the bard offers no solution, but describes death and ageing with subtle colour imagery, in a really chilling way:

When I behold the violet past prime
And sable curls all silver’ed o’er with white…
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;

Isn’t that just a perfect word to describe sheaves tied round the middle with string: ‘girded’

Sonnet 30 is a sad one, about mourning friends who have died. Here the turn is confined to the couplet, which packs all the more punch for it, and its consoling:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Sonnet 71 picks up the same theme, and I might never have spotted this if not for the clever selection. It reads like a response from the dead loved friend to the mourner:

… for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.

The next sonnet picks up the notion of sweet thoughts, the connection being pleasure and enjoyment; the one after that, sonnet 102, explores a theme also seen in Shakespeare’s plays, that mature love does not need to keep declaring itself, a subtle link to ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’. The last poem is a surprise, a more negative note introduced by using ‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame’, to end the selection. It is as though the love affair suggested so far has come to an end, and Shakespeare summarises the ‘hell’ but concludes that none of us is wise enough to avoid it, even though we know love ends: ‘yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell’.

Overall, this is an imaginative selection which breathes new life into the original 154. I think it will lead readers to rediscover them, and maybe consider what selection they might have made themselves.

Ten Poems about Babies were selected by Imtiaz Dharker. Her brief introduction explains her choices and shows how hard it was to whittle her favourites down to ten. The opener is that playful and joyful riddle about pregnancy, ‘You’re’ by Sylvia Plath. Perhaps less well known, but just as delightful, is John Agard’s ‘Moonbelly’, a deceptively simple poem about conception that includes children, no easy task for the subject matter:

when mummywater
an daddywater
meet

With good blessing
spirits willing
navel string
soon sing

I thought I knew Agard’s opus pretty well, but I’ve never read this one before. Another pregnancy poem new to me is Maura Dooley’s ‘Freight’, which is a delight. The extended metaphor is that of a boat, which is not a new image (I have used it myself) but the way she handles it is so playful it makes me smile:

I am the ship in which you sail,

Your sieve, your pea green boat.
I’ll pay whatever your ferry needs.

I love her references to ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, which anticipates reading poems to a baby after birth. William Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’ is the perfect birth poem, though my mind leaps to its counterpart in Poems of Experience, ‘Infant Sorrow’. This poem and Kate Clanchy’s ‘Not Art’ occupy the centrefold of the pamphlet, a transition from uterus to outside world and the beginning of the joys and work of parenthood. Clanchy’s poem is a work-song in which she shows her affinity with other women’s work. She moves from her own looking after a new baby, ‘intricate wiping and wrapping’, to a wider, global view:

This is the work women draw from the river,
wet to the waist, singing in time,
the work we swing from our shoulders,

It’s an ambitious and celebratory poem, and I am glad to make its acquaintance. The beauty of these Candlestick Press pamphlets is the way old favourites sit alongside new discoveries. The next poem is Anne Stevenson’s ‘The Victory’, a poem I have recognised for years as spelling out the fear of a mother in meeting a new baby: will love be strong enough to keep this small human safe?

Tiny antagonist, gory,
blue as a bruise. The stains
of your cloud of glory
bled from my veins.

The lexical choices in this poem are all sharp and pointy. It’s a very different tone to Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’, being rather closer to ‘Infant Sorrrow’. As always with Stevenson’s poems, there is a strong rhythm and no wasted words. It is juxtaposed with another poem to a baby boy, ‘Waking with Russell’ by Don Paterson, which takes sonnet form. It’s very tender and beautifully turned in the sestet. A simple meditation on waking with his four day old child, it manages to reach out into the lives ahead, a pair-bonding of father and son: ‘the smile poured through us like a river’. The rhymes in the sestet have a gentle cadence, all feminine rhymes: ‘giver/river/forever’.

I first heard Gillian Clarke read her poem ’Babysitting’ when my now adult daughters were small. I had to go up and speak to her afterwards because she had identified exactly what babysitting is like when you are a mother, and a breastfeeding one at that. So used to being the best comforter for your own child, it’s a mystery how to pull the magic trick with someone else’s:

I am sitting in a strange room, listening
For the wrong baby. I don’t love
This baby…
I am afraid of her. If she wakes
She will hate me.

Clarke breaks the lines to make the speaker sound hesitant, reluctant, tense. This pamphlet concludes with two tender poems, one from Dharker herself, about her daughter learning to speak, and one of Carol Ann Duffy’s, about watching her daughter sleep. Ten Poems about Babies would make a wonderful substitute for a card: it is a lovely read, totally inclusive unlike a lot of cards, and great to have around on the coffee table when your baby falls asleep on you and you don’t want to disturb the slumbers.

As a keen knitter, I was excited to see Ten Poems about Knitting, although there were some poems I would have liked to have seen included which were not (for example a Matt Simpson poem about his mother knitting Aran jumpers for him and his father), and I would have loved to have had some of my poems about knitting included. I was very glad to see Jessie Pope; she is unfairly labelled a pro-war poet, but in fact changed her stance when it became clear that World War One was carnage, to write some touching, tough poems about women at home, waiting and knitting, in fear for their menfolk. Liz Lochhead’s poem ‘For my Grandmother Knitting’ finds a rightful place here, as does Jackie Kay’s beautiful poem The Knitter’, in which she creates a character expressing the history of knitting and how the act of it measures time. Allison McVety’s ‘Needlework’ also creates a character, this time a woman for whom knitting is a refuge from her less than ideal marriage.

Women outweigh men somewhat in this pamphlet, and I can see that efforts have been made to redress that by including ‘The Manly Art of Knitting’ by Christopher James and Roy Marshall’s long and lovely poem about how knitting bonds a community. ‘Neighbours We’ll Not Part Tonight’. I loved both poems and they really add something else to the selection. James’ poem is a portrait of his father, affectionate and funny, and Marshall’s is a hymn to togetherness, with many a joyous list: ‘There was Ram’s-Back Rachel, Black Tick and Tam Tup’ for instance. I am with Auden, I love lists.

Gwynneth Lewis speaks of the secret language of knitting; Sue Dymock’s poem is full of memories for long gone things, a little vintage magic; Lydia Towsey uses knitting as a metaphor for love; Jane Durcan of the frustrations of knitting, but then the joy of giving away something made with love. The pamphlet ends with a bonus page: one tiny poem by Emily Dickinson and an anonymous epigram. Buy this pamphlet for any knitter you know, and get one yourself. I am going to keep mine in my knitting bag!

The final pamphlet is a good one for the bedside table, great for reading in bed or if you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep. Ten Bedtime Poems (Volume Two) is edited by Germaine Greer. I am guessing she was working to a tight budget as only two of the poems are still in copyright. She apologises in her introduction for the fact that only two women are included; that would be partly because there are fewer women poets published prior to the 20th century. I like the way she has moved chronologically through the history of poetry, beginning with Henry Howard and John Donne and ending with W. H. Auden and Kathleen Raine. Howard’s opening sonnet is about not having his loved one beside him, although night-time is very lovely, whereas Donne’s poem is the cheeky Elegy XIX, in which he incites his girlfriend to hurry up and take off her clothes so they can make love. It’s wonderfully erotic without being overly explicit:

Off with that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow.

So far, the poems are not sleep-inducing but rather about restlessness, and the following Shakespeare sonnet, LX1, expands that motif. The speaker wants to sleep, but he cannot for thinking of his mistress:

Is it thy will thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, a 17th century poet, breaks the mood with her gentle reverie, a poem which would be beautiful read aloud at bedtime because it is very musical. The iambic pentameter couplets add to the lulling music, and the poem is refreshing for summer nights:

When freshened grass now bears itself upright
And makes cool banks to pleasing rest invite,
Whence springs the woodbine and the briar rose,
And where the sleepy cowslip sheltered grows.

This is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s bank where wild time grows, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other creatures, birds and plants are cited in this soothing piece, which is followed by an extract from Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ and a Wordsworth sonnet, ‘To Sleep’, which should appeal to insomniacs. I often prefer Wordsworth’s sonnets and ballads to his longer work, and this one has a touch of fun: he describes ‘counting sheep’ to try to find his sleep:

A flock of sheep that leisurely pass by
One after one; the sound of rain, and bees
Murmuring; the fall of rivers, winds and seas,
Smooth fields, white sheets of water, and pure sky.
I’ve thought of all by turns and still I lie
Sleepless;

That poem might console insomniacs, to know they are not alone. Tennyson’s ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’ sonnet follows, then Yeats’ stunning ‘Byzantium,’ then one of my favourite Auden poems: ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’, which for my money is one of the great love poems, as well as a profound lullaby and meditation on life. Kathleen Raine is given the last word with ‘Amo Ergo Sum’. Love has been a strong thread in this selection, and this one links beautifully with Auden, because it has the same motif of sleeping in the arms of a loved one. Raine’s angle is different, however:

All night the river flows into my sleep,
Ten thousand things are sleeping in my arms,
And sleeping wake, and flowing are at rest.

I am glad to see this lovely poem here, as I suspect Raine is not being read half as much as she deserves to be.

So that’s it, four quality pamphlets to bring poetry into people’s lives. As you can tell, I am a fan of Candlestick Press. I collect them when I can afford to and have found the same quality in all of them. I enjoy the different selectors and introductions as well as those chosen by the editorial team, and while I might hanker sometimes after different poems’ inclusion, every Candlestick pamphlet I have has reminded me of old favourites and introduced new ones.