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curated by Thornton Rigg

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poetry

Norman Nicholson : “unique & unjustly overlooked Cumbrian”

… a peck of poems …

lake district Lakes poetry

When the BBC marked the 100th anniversary of Norman Nicholson‘s birth in January 2014 with a radio programme,  their press release described him as “the unique and unjustly overlooked Cumbrian” and I guess the short radio documentary may have helped to raise his profile a little – though calling the programme “Provincial Pleasures” was, I feel, damning the man with faint praise.

Norman was championed by TS Eliot, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney though he remains little known because he chose to stay in the little town of Millom, Cumbria, on the western edges of the Lake District rather than move south to London.

Norman wrote a lovely meditative poem about his craft and about his middle name (which was also his mother’s maiden name) “Cornthwaite”. It comes from the Olde English “cweorn” meaning corn, and the Norse Viking “tveit” meaning a meadow or clearing.

“… I lop, / Chop and bill-hook at thickets and rankness of speech, / Straining to let light in, make space for a word, / To hack out once again my inherited thwaite / And sow my peck of poems, not much of a crop.”*

Norman Cornthwaite Nicholson, 8 January 1914 – 30 May 1987.

To learn more about him, you can visit the Norman Nicholson Society‘s website. The link is here.

*This poem was first published in his collection, Sea to the West,  Faber & Faber, 1981 and can be found in Collected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1994, pp.354 © The Trustees of the Estate of Norman Nicholson, by permission of David Higham Associates Limited

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The British Countryside : Are you Rustic or Lyrical?

Another trend I’ve spotted from my favourites reviews of 2017 is the artists and writers’ response to nature.

basic nest architecture poems seren

Are we down in the terrifying muddy ditches of the Cumbrian badlands with Jacob Polley‘s sparkling poems about Jackself : “By head-lice powder, Paraquat / snapdragon’s snap and rat-tat-tat / who’s at the door / of the door of the door / it’s Jackself in his toadskin hat?” ? (Every Creeping Thing in Jackself : Jacob Polley.) And dying, sodden and foolish, from wearing Italian walking gear in a collection of ephemera created by Rebecca Chesney‘s Death by Denim. (Creating the Countryside : Compton Verney) ?

denim

Or are we celebrating the lyricism in nature along with Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane in their stunning The Lost Words – a beguiling mix of illuminated manuscript and spell grimoire? And reflecting how nature can enrich our lives with Alex Preston and Neil Gower in the delightful birder’s book As Kingfishers Catch Fire. ?

Of course it’s both – but the oscillation between the two sides I find do fascinating.

I am also intrigued to find that most of these meditations on nature are through illustration and poetry  – as if the elusive quality of our responses cannot be tied down in prose. As Polly Atkins writes: “All I can do / is believe you will keep on being the warm / vaulting life, ravelled round mine, / although I may never hold you.” (Rabbit in morning in Basic Nest Architecture)

Wishing you all a very happy New Year.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire : Alex Preston & Neil Gower

… deep joy from looking up and writing down …

birds kingfishers poetry

A gem like collection of reminiscence, poetry, description and birding facts, Alex Preston has teamed up with the brilliant graphic artist Neil Gower to produce a wonderfully engaging commonplace book – perfect for Winter reading and musing.

In 21 chapters from Peregrine to Nightingale, Alex weaves his personal history around a wide ranging collection of poetry and descriptions of birds. Each chapter is illuminated by Neil’s art. Their enthusiasm spills over into some delightfully discursive end notes and beautifully designed end papers. If you like Robert Macfarlane‘s works such as The Old Ways this is definitely for you.

As Alex says in his introduction : “This book is, above all, a history of the deep joy that comes from looking up and writing down.”

Highly recommended.

Alex Preston is an award-winning novelist. He writes for magazines as well as monthly fiction reviews for the Observer. He is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. He is @ahmpreston on Twitter.

Over the past 30 years Neil Gower‘s clients have included most major publishing houses in the UK & US. He spent 10 years as Contributing Artist to Conde Nast Traveler in New York. He runs a delightfully engaging website which includes his background notes to creating this book here. Neil can also be found on twitter here.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire was published by corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown on 13 July 2017 and is my twentieth review for the British Books Challenge 2017.

Basic Nest Architecture : Polly Atkins

… haunting evocations of nature …

basic nest architecture poems seren

This haunting collection makes me pause and remember that the poetry I love is just like good architecture. Polly creates the scaffolding of an idea and then she leaves enough space between the words to allow my thoughts to hang around her ideas and then flow out and into that indefinable space of imagination.

I particularly liked the poems of her magical encounters with wild animals : rabbit, fox and deer which reminded  of Rilke‘s Unicorn Sonnet; and her Jack Daw description which, like Robert Macfarlane, seems to conjure the bird alive.

Other more lengthy reviews can be found on the publisher’s website here.

Highly recommended.

Polly Atkin lives in Cumbria. Her debut poetry pamphlet bone song (Clitheroe: Aussteiger, 2008) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award, 2009. Her second poetry pamphlet Shadow Dispatches (Seren, 2013) won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize, 2012. In 2014 an extract from Basic Nest Architecture was awarded New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse Prize. Polly has taught English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University and the Universities of Strathclyde and Cumbria.

Cover design moment:  The amazing cover features a still life of an exploded nest and bird parts by the wonderful Mary Jo Hoffman. She posts photographs of natural objects found usually around Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, on her website here. I am so glad I have discovered her site!

Added 20/11 Polly says: “The powers of the internet! I was looking for images that tied together bodies, nests & a sense of structure & found her …” When asked whether she had designed the whole thing, she said that Seren were ” … definitely responsible for putting it together so beautifully though & bringing the egg pattern into the lettering. Great design work!” All of this was via a Twitter exchange I had with Polly @pollyrowena

Basic Nest Architecture by Polly Atkin was published by the Welsh independent Seren Press on 27 February 2017 and I bought in from the lovely Artworks, gallery and shop, in Aberdyfi. If you are in the area the shop is well worth a browse.

This is my nineteenth review for the British Books Challenge 2017.

 

The Lost Words : Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris

… enchanting spells to conjure up nature …

kingfisher jackie morris

Hailed as one of the most beautiful books of the year, The Lost Words is a delightful collaboration between the very inspiring nature writer, Robert Macfarlane, and a supremely talented illustrator, Jackie Morris. Together they have produced a cross between a medieval illuminated manuscript and spell grimoire. The conceit behind the work is that Robert’s words have to conjure the missing animals and plants back into the world.

Each spell takes up three double page spreads. First there is a spread showing a lack: a shadow, an absence, a washed out line drawing; then comes the spell of conjuration and a full page portrait; and finally another full double page spread showing the living object in its landscape. This creates a beguiling rhythm to the procession of beautiful images across these large pages.

The poems themselves are acrostic, spelling out the plant or creature’s name using the first letter of the lines and have a Anglo-Saxon kenning quality about them. Robert twists and turns words about using alliteration and assonance to create evocative word combinations which really come alive when spoken out loud – rather like the expressive nature poems of Gerald Manly Hopkins. Jackie‘s illustrations are seductively gorgeous, making one want to linger over the pages, searching out the detail and basking in the gold leaf.

The whole book is truly delightful – full of humour, warmth and artistry.  And what’s more, there is an exhibition of their collaboration running at Compton Verney until 17th December. Further details are here.

Robert Macfarlane has established himself as one of the finest landscape writers of recent times. His wonderful book, Landmarks, (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) defends the lost language of the British countryside and is a precursor to this work. His other books include Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways. I can highly recommend all of these booksHe is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and writes on environmentalism, literature and travel for publications including the Guardian, the Sunday Times and The New York Times.

Jackie Morris has created over forty books, including beloved classics such as Song of the Golden Hare, Tell Me A Dragon, East of the Sun, West of the Moon and The Wild Swans – and my personal favourite, Can you see a Little Bear? which will be re-released next Summer. She collaborated with Ted Hughes, and her books have sold more than a million copies worldwide.  Have a look at her website here.

The Lost Words was published by Hamish Hamilton in October 2017 and is my eighteenth review for the British Books Challenge 2017.

 

Jackself : Cover Design

After contacting Pan Macmillan, I’ve tracked down the designer of the wonderful Jackself cover.

Naomi Clark, Cover Designer and Artworker at Pan Macmillan owned up!  

She explained the thoughts behind the design: “… the book has a cast of characters – plus lots of references to Jack figures – so Jackdaw, Jack-O-Lantern, Jack Sprat, Cheapjack. Our idea was to make the cover a kind of cut-out or pattern book – so that it would be designed to look as if you could cut out these figures and use them for your own little puppet theatre. The author was really keen on the jockey image as it has the vibrancy and colour we wanted to achieve.”

The “Jockey”  was one in a series of paper puppets printed by Franz-Josef Holler, a German toy manufacturer in the 1970s and 1980s.  I am assuming the images are from late c19th.  As you can see, the cover design is pretty close to the original – apart the the face and cigarette.

It’s such an arresting image.  The dismembered puppet body puts me in mind of a macabre butcher’s slab and as such, it’s very appropriate for this collection of poems.  My earlier review for Jackself is here.

If you would like to see any more of Naomi’s work, here is the link : http://cargocollective.com/NaomiClark

Jackself : Jacob Polley

… like citrus in winter …

jackself-9781447290445

I had to keep putting the book down. Is that a weird thing to say? Does anyone else do that? Again and again, I would come across a phrase or an image, that was so arresting and intense that, like sharp grapefruit, I was compelled to stop and savour before reading on.  Jacob himself talks of “a glimpse of something” in The Guardian‘s series My Writing Day; and it is these glimpses that the judges of the TS Eliot Prize hint at when they describe the collection as “a firework of a book”.  

The images are embedded in a playful, shadowy autobiography of Jack, and his many selves, set in a mythic Cumbrian border country called Lamanby.  Jack and his mate, Jeremy Wren, banter and fool about through 34 poems.  Their casual brutality and grimy surroundings, mixed with nursery rhymes and folklore, put me in mind of the wonderful Rooster in Jez Butterworth‘s play, Jerusalem.

If you buy only one book of poetry this year, it really should be this one.  Highly recommended.

Jacob Polley was born in Carlisle, Cumbria. He is the author of four books of poems and a novel, Talk of the Town. He teaches at the University of Newcastle where lives.

Cover design moment:  The very arresting puppet cut-out design was inspired by a Franz-Josef Holler design called “Jockey” and presumably comes out of the PanMacmillan Art Department.  I am still trying to find out.  Update : I have traced the designer.  If you are interested, click for later post.

This book is the fifth review in my British Books Challenge 2017.  Come and join us at over at Chelley Toy’s site.

Jackself by Jacob Polley was published by Picador Poetry on 3 November 2016.  It won the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry 2016 announced on 16 January 2017.   I bought it from Emily’s Bookshop.  Hiya Em!

 

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