Thursday, 12 January 2017


The year has turned.

I came home from my long break away over Christmas and New Year to see snowdrops just showing white in the garden and to hear a greater spotted woodpecker performing some virtuoso display drumming on the beech tree.   Yesterday I went out to Silloth and walked the dog along the promenade.  The Solway high tide churned in a muddy cauldron and a small flock of oyster-catchers stood disconsolately on the grass.  The wind carried sudden scuds of rain and a rainbow arced over the slate-grey sky.

It’s that time of year when I produce another opinionated list of books I think you must read.  Since I started compiling this annual list in (I think) January 2012 I’ve noticed an increase in the quality of design of poetry books.   Could that be one reason why an estimated ten million pounds worth of poetry books were sold in the UK in 2016?  Publishers seem to be waking up to the fact that good design increases sales.  Good design is vital, not an optional add-on.  It’s not enough that the poems themselves are good.  As Marshall McLuhan said in the Sixties, “The medium is the message”.  With the popularity of ebooks there must be a reason to buy a paper book.

This year I’ve read some excellent illustrated poetry books.  I’ve included two of these on the list, but I am going to cheat and mention two more – A Fold in the River (Philip Gross and Valerie Coffin Price) and Slate Voices (Jan Fortune and Mavis Gulliver). 

After that preamble, here’s the list:

Julia Blackburn Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings (Full Circle Editions 2016) with photographs by Andrew Smiley and a Dutch translation by Maria Droogleever Fortuyn.  Would more people buy poetry books if they were as beautiful and sensitive as this one?

Beverley Bie Brahic Hunting the Boar (CB Editions 2016).  Intelligent, coherent, moving poems well-presented by C B Editions in an understated slightly retro design.   Proof that a small press can do as good a job as the bigger outfits.

Tim Cresswell Fence (Penned in the Margins 2015).  I bought this on the weakness of a bad review and was not disappointed.  These poems, based on a “two week adventure in Svalbard” have the elegant minimalism of the far north.

All My Important Nothings (ed. Maura Dooley) (smith/doorstop 2015).  It’s the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Jane Austen this year.  Here’s a good way to celebrate: read this pamphlet of Austen-inspired poems from contemporary writers, including Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker, Zaffar Kunial and Blake Morrison.  Great fun.

Helen Farish The Dog of Memory (Bloodaxe 2016).  Finely crafted poems with an elegiac feel (see my post of 18 October 2016 “Paying attention”).  If you have followed Helen’s work since her Forward prize-winning Intimates you’ll know that a new collection is well worth reading.

Lars Gustafsson Selected Poems, translated by John Irons (Bloodaxe 2015).  This varied selection by one of Sweden’s great literary figures is my translation choice.  “Gustafsson’s verse is human, compassionate, playful, deeply concerned with the natural world, minutely observant, and, quite often, just laugh out loud funny” (Ross Cogan).

Angela Leighton Spills (Carcanet 2016).  A bumper volume from a poet who should be more widely known. 
Thirty poems, a set of Canticles for a Passion, some translations from the Italian (a literal translation and a poetic translation of each one in parallel) and sixteen fragments of prose memoir.

Grevel Lindop Luna Park (Carcanet 2015).  This volume sees Grevel writing at the height of his powers.  Well-written, interesting poems on a wide variety of subjects, including a commissioned sequence for the National Trust’s Shugborough Park.

Kei Miller The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet 2014).  This book made Kei Miller into a Next Generation Poet.  I really liked his exploration of two languages (standard English and Jamaican patois) and of opposing world views (colonial/post colonial, scientific/intuitive, rational/Rastafarian).

Tom Pow Concerning the Atlas of Scotland (Polygon 2014).  If you like maps you’ll enjoy these accessible, fascinating poems, accompanied by colour illustrations from the National Library of Scotland and by drawings by Diane Garrick.  From Treasure Island to a Soviet Map of Edinburgh!

Gary Snyder This Present Moment (Counterpoint 2015).  Existing Gary Snyder fans will know his usual interests in Zen Buddhist spirituality and the natural world, and his loosely constructed, baggy poetic style.  In this volume he runs a complete gamut of emotion from the heart-rending “Go Now” about the death of his wife to the hilarious “Why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh”.

Heidi Williamson The Print Museum (Bloodaxe 2016).  My great grandfather, grandfather and half uncle were printers so I couldn’t help but love Heidi Williamson’s poems inspired by a residency at the John Jarrold Printing Museum in Norwich.

Now read on.

Friday, 23 December 2016


The glint of a splintered rainbow
the shine, the sheen,
coruscations bright with water drops

each wave, each bundle of energy
a courante, a gig,
dancers leaping in sequins of gold,

a white bird's wings silvered against the sky
frost's shimmering stars
a thread of beads on a spider's web

even the dust in a gleam of light

© Mary Robinson 2016


Sunday, 11 December 2016


Nativity scenes, wise men, Christmas trees, doves, dogs, cats, snowy scenes and even sprouts (yes!) – but this year I’ve yet to receive a card with a picture of reindeer on it.  There’s time yet.  Reindeer are creatures of the chill polar north and the 1823 poem The Night Before Christmas popularised them as draft animals for the sledge of Father Christmas.

There is a Sami myth that the divine creator took the beating heart of a two year old reindeer and placed it at the earth’s centre.  “The rhythm of the heart is the rhythm of the world, the pulse of life, the source of all being.  When times are difficult, the people have only to press their ears to the ground and listen: if they hear the beating of the reindeer’s heart, all will be well, they will emerge from the hard times.  If they do not, they are doomed”.

This piece of Sami folklore, quoted from Harald Gaski, opens John Burnside’s short essay A Poet’s Polemic which I picked up at the Scottish Poetry Library a couple of weeks ago.  The essay is subtitled “Otro Mundo es Posible: Poetry, Dissidence and Reality TV”.  Burnside’s essay is political in the widest sense of the word.  He challenges a world in which we are reduced to consumers of bland mass-produced homogeneity (I think of Joseph Brodsky’s opening lines of “December 24, 1971”:
    “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
      At the grocers all slipping and pushing ...”
  just substitute supermarket for grocers).

It’s worth remembering that Burnside is a novelist as well as a poet, but it is the role of the poet which he singles out to be dissident, to oppose the cultural imperialism of mass identity.  In a world which substitutes “the manipulated image for the thing-in-itself, fundamentalism for generosity of spirit, the virtual for the real, the managed for the wild” the poet is called to pay attention to and reaffirm the detail of the world “in all its vital, messy, beautiful, tragic reality”.

A few days later I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s article “Losing Touch” in which he admits “I’ve found myself checking email while giving my kids a bath, jumping over to the internet when a sentence or idea doesn’t come effortlessly in my writing, searching for shade on a beautiful spring day so I can see the screen of my phone”.  Meanwhile the internet is tracking our every move and reducing us to profiled consumers.

How easy it is to reach for the technology.  Sailing round Scotland in small boats I’ve seen dolphins and basking sharks very close.  I’ve resisted the urge to attempt to photograph them.  Instead I’ve concentrated on that magical moment when the skipper cuts the engines and the boat floats idly while the sleek glistening bodies of dolphins leap from the water or a basking shark cruises like a dark rippling underwater shadow, its jaws wide open for plankton, only its two fins breaking the surface.     

Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript” directs the reader/listener to drive out to the Flaggy Shore in County Clare when
 “ ... the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans”
But, he goes on, “Useless to think you’ll park and capture it”.  This is an experience where
“ ... big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
Those moments when the heart is caught off guard are vital to our experience of life.

Burnside quotes a letter from Don DeLillo to Jonathan Franzen: “Writing is a form of personal freedom.  It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us”.  Burnside goes on to say “What a good poem does is take us out of ourselves” (this is as true in the process of writing as of reading).  Such a poem implies that “another world is possible”.    “We must refuse to join with a system that denatures everything, from the supermarket apple to the ground under our feet, for profit’s sake.” 

Poetry is ultimately an “ecological discipline”.  We need to put our ears to the earth and listen.  If we can hear the reindeer’s beating heart we will go on.

Read on
John Burnside’s stimulating essay A Poet’s Polemic subtitled Otro Mundo es Posible: Poetry, Dissidence and Reality TV is worth reading in full.  It was originally published by the Scottish Book Trust for National Poetry Day 2003.  I picked up a free copy at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh

There is an extract from the essay on the Scotsman website

Jonathan Safran Foer’s article “Losing Touch” was published in the Review section of The Guardian 3 December 2016.  You can find the article at

Friday, 2 December 2016


Two days in Edinburgh this week.  Another country.  Travelling up on the train on Tuesday morning I alternated between reading Eamonn Grennan’s poems and looking at the landscape.  Grennan’s fine collection The Quick of It is made up entirely of short ten-line poems.  They reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s Squarings – vivid word sketches, each one a miniature masterpiece of detail and craft.   The low light, less than a month before the winter solstice, illuminated every fold in the land: a dusting of snow on the hills, pale bristly stubble fields, the long shadows of isolated farms and barns, tussocks of reeds alongside fast flowing streams. The scenery gradually changed from countryside to urban, first suburbs and allotments, soon flats, warehouses, an Odeon sign, offices, Haymarket station and finally Waverley. 

My first destination was (as always in Edinburgh) the Scottish Poetry Library.  I browsed the excellent selection of poetry magazines, dipped into the pamphlets upstairs and bought a book from the bright new shop. There are always interesting freebies at the library and I picked up John Burnside’s essay A Poet’s Polemic to read later.

I hadn’t intended to go to the National Library but the map exhibition was irresistible, especially having read Tom Pow’s beautifully illustrated Concerning the Atlas of Scotland and other poems written when Tom was Bartholomew writer in residence at the library in 2013.  “Each of our lives traces its own map onto the shared terrain”, wrote Rebecca Solnit and Tom used this quotation as the epigraph to his collection.

At 4.15 there was just time to call in at the National Museum to check out things on my must-see list.       The first was the church ship model, one of the items in Neal MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World (broadcast on BBC Radio 4).  The ship was made to be displayed in a church as a votive offering to God for the safe return of James the Sixth (or First, depending on which side of the border you are) after his marriage to Anne of Denmark, sister of King Christian the Fourth of Denmark (he of the long plait and one of the main characters in Rose Tremain’s brilliant novel, Music and Silence).  James feared for his life on the return voyage from Scandinavia – and he believed that the terrible storms which almost overwhelmed the ship were the work of Scottish witches (hence the link with Shakespeare’s Macbeth).  The model ship is only about 65cms high, darkly painted in red and black, fully rigged in thick black threads, and decorated in gold and silver paint.  Mermaids clutch their fleshy, fishy tails but the ranks of cannons poking from the hatches above them are a serious reminder that this sailing ship was no romantic vessel but a warship. 

After being mistakenly directed to the St Finan exhibit I finally found St Fillan.  I wanted to look him up after one of the North Cumbria Stanza Group poets read a poem about St Fillan at a recent workshop.   The cult of St Fillan centred on Strathfillan Priory (Glendochart) and the museum has the three remaining relics associated with the saint.  There is a cast bronze bell or “bernane” (c. 900 AD), a silver gilt crozier shrine or “coigrich” (15th century but with earlier elements) and a bronze crozier head (11th century) rediscovered within the crozier shrine in the 19th century.   The coigrich incorporated a large lozenge-shaped crystal and  had the most beautiful, intricate metal work, so fine it resembled embroidery.  If I should need it any time it was good to know that the bernane was a cure for madness.  Legend and history mingled together in a glass case. 

Meeting up with old friends was another delight of my visit.  We shared news and memories and good food.  Then it was back over the border on Wednesday night.   

Thursday, 24 November 2016


“Before the leaves change, light transforms these lucid
speaking trees”
                                          (Anne Stevenson “Stasis”)

Every day I look out of my dining room window and see the leaves changing.  This morning the sunlight filters through amber leaves on oak and beech.  The ash’s lemony leaves fell weeks ago, the golden horse chestnut’s only recently.  The birch’s coppery foil leaves have gone.  The quickthorn hedge is bare but there’s a good stock of haws for the birds.   My garden is in a state of transformation from its enclosed summer appearance (a place for green thoughts in a green shade) to its open winter aspect when I can stand at the kitchen window and see vehicles on the lane half a mile away.

That opening quotation from Anne Stevenson’s poem comes from her sequence “Sonnets for Five Seasons”.  I can never tally four seasons into the twelve months so the Scottish and Northern English idea of five seasons seems to fit my experience of the year much better.  In Scots the five seasons are Lent, Simmer, Hairst, the Back-End, Winter.  With the shift to cold frosts and stormy weather I feel we are now in the back-end, the days shortening to the Solstice, the back-end of the old year.  But the trees haven’t quite succumbed to winter.

Last weekend we had a reunion – five of us who were students together in Liverpool in the seventies.  The last time we all got together was several years ago when we were juggling childcare, work, aged parents.  I wrote about that in “Reunion”, a poem which found its way into The Art of Gardening.  Now, the focus of our lives is different.  We have mostly become the older generation, our offspring have left home and some of them have produced children of their own, most of us have retired from the day job, several of us have moved house or are planning to move.  Life has turned out differently from what we expected when we were students.   For some there was a sense of a new freedom, for others a sense of constriction.  For all of us a new awareness that we are at a time of transition.  Carol Ann Duffy’s challenging, encouraging question (from her poem “Snow”) seems particularly relevant:  What will you do with the gift of your left life?

I hope we can, in R S Thomas’s words, catch this
     one truth by surprise
       that there is everything to look forward to.

                                         (from “Arrival”)