The Ferryman

The ferryman

Jezz Butterworth’s The Ferryman is not exactly poetry but there is a lot of poetry in it and as I have just been to see it, I thought I would try to articulate my mixed feelings about it. I went because I loved Jerusalem, because or despite having to teach it as an A-level text.


There are plenty of echoes of Jerusalem in this play, especially the mixture of high and pop culture and folk belief. Instead of the giants in Jerusalem, here we have banshees; instead of an alienated and abused girl singing at key moments there is a demented old lady who bursts into folk song; instead of a gaga Professor to introduce the canon, there is a very fluent great uncle who is given to reading Virgil in the small hours. Although the setting is very different, Derry rather than deepest Wiltshire, the setting is still rural and the characters are rooted in place.


The echoes are not confined to Jerusalem. The play makes so many nods to literary and dramatic tradition that it is sometimes difficult to see where post-modern intertextuality differs from second-hand material. The literary great-uncle seems descended from Brian Friel’s hedge school-master in Translations, whilst the character of Tom Kettle owes more than a little to Lenny in Of Mice and Men. The set seems to come from Synge by way of McDonagh and I cannot be the only Philistine who thought of the film Michael Collins when the dotty aunty launched into “She Moved through the Fair”, provoking more gloom and foreboding. The reference to a pistol still hanging around since 1916 recalled the theatrical adage that if there’s a gun on the table in Act One it will be fired in Act 3. Another snook cocked at dramatic wisdom is the overwhelming presence of animals and children, guaranteed scene-stealers and potential distractions from the matter of the play.

the ferryman set


However, these are minor gripes and I admit that after a shaky start, I was drawn into the play and carried along by its story. Butterworth, as before, raises interesting questions and the play is densely and theatrically textured. However, I was left with doubts and these concerned authenticity. This was symbolised for me by the weird and wonderfully mixed and inadequately sustained attempts at regional accents, although the dialect was more convincing, especially that of the male characters. This play, set at the time of the Hunger Strike, dealt with issues which are still controversial, urgent and painful. It is a play where the iniquity of the English throughout history and into the present is taken as a given; it should have made the English audience uncomfortable; instead, they lapped it up. At only one point did the reality of the Troubles break through, in Shane Corcoran’s long speech on the everyday experience of a young Catholic man in the city of Derry. Otherwise, the historical context just provided a backdrop for the exploration of what I heard one member of the audience describe as a ‘dysfunctional family’. I have heard King Lear described in the same terms.


I think that at the core of the discomfort I feel about this play is that it is about ‘them’, whereas Jerusalem with its questioning of English identity was about ‘us’. Moreover, Jerusalem was set in the ‘now’, whereas The Ferryman attempts to sanitise itself through being ‘then’, before the Good Friday Agreements, before the Nobel Peace Prizes, before the English had been able to put the Troubles to bed. But this problem has not gone away; ironically, it has come back into English consciousness through the shambolic Tory deals with the DUP and the threats of a closed border posed by Brexit. For the people of Northern Ireland, the problem has never gone away. The wounds of the past fifty years are still as raw as the memory of 1916 is for the character of Aunt Pat in the play, and that is true for those on each side of the political divide. The play is set firmly within the republican Catholic culture, so I suppose it doesn’t matter that there is almost no reference to loyalists or Protestants, apart from one typically tasteless joke about the Elephant Man. (This is not an objection to tasteless jokes.) However, this leads to an oversimplified view of the struggle as a seamless struggle of the Irish against the English, which distorts the historical realities of the times.


More successful, in my opinion, is the way in which the play evokes the atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty which still pervades the society. Who did what and why, whether for political idealism, criminal gain, cash, because of blackmail, self-interest, fear or ignorance –these are still the questions being asked, or worse, not asked, within society and within families. The figure of the IRA commander is chilling but convincing; hard to imagine that such a character could ever mellow into one of the Chuckle Brothers. The priest, himself a victim, is believable if not admirable, a reminder that the clergy, like their secular brothers and sisters, grew up in the same system. The theme of the misplaced or displaced, whether human or creature, runs throughout the play, from the disappeared Seamus Carney to his wife and child who live on the charity of his brother, to the stray Englishman given shelter on the Carney farm, to the psychologically lost figure of Aunt Maggie Far Away who suffers from some kind of dementia, with occasional intervals of lucidity. Then there is Mary Carney, wife of Quinn, who spends most of her time upstairs, seeming to have suspended her life, while Oisin, son of the missing Seamus, keeps hiding or running away. The theme is underscored by the disappearance of the goose and by Aunt Maggie’s rendition of Yeats’ song, “The Stolen Child”. However, what really matters is the effect of this missingness, this not knowing or lack of closure, on those who are left. Mary Carney has put off confronting her husband over the unwelcome presence of his brother’s young attractive wife in the household; “Now is not the time to be having this conversation” she tells him over the years. The breakdown in verbal communication has not prevented or perhaps has even promoted the production of seven children, in step succession down to an eleven-month baby. As the play progresses and the family is forced to deal with the knowledge that the missing Seamus was murdered and has been dead for ten years, the cracks and divisions appear and the image of the closely-knit extended family is shattered as secrets from the past emerge.


Counterpointing or perhaps complementing this tragic theme is the more positive emphasis on story-telling, something else which is familiar from Jerusalem. In that play stories provide a gateway into the imagination, an escape from the mundanity of life in a Wiltshire village. Here the stories are told as the narratives people can live by, the way they make sense of and justify their lives. Aunt Pat clings to her story of Pat and the Easter Rising; Shane and Declan Corcoran create a place for themselves in Republican mythology as they tell the story of their attendance at Bobby Sands’ funeral. Uncle Patrick is an inveterate storyteller. However, characters are not allowed to tell their stories without interruption from their listeners, who monitor what they hear and offer improvements, making it clear that they know that these are stories first and history second, if at all. Only Aunt Maggie tells her stories uninterrupted to an audience of little girls, who then question her about the future as if she were a Sybil, gifted with prophetic power. Yet Aunt Maggie, a bit like Caitlin, Seamus’ wife, finds herself caught by different versions of her story. She tells her great-nieces about her unrequited love for Francis Maloney, but later on she is shown believing that she has married him and he has deserted her. Similarly, Caitlin seems to have known her husband was dead from the beginning while simultaneously acting out the belief he was alive. Quinn is caught between two women; the surface story is that he and his wife are a devoted couple, while the sub-text tells of a broken relationship and an unacknowledged love of his sister-in-law. The entire family and community collude in supporting the surface story while being aware to different degrees of the underlying situation. In The Ferryman storytelling, for better or worse, is shown as part of the human condition.


So, an interesting play, a play worth seeing. How would it go down in Derry?



Jorie Graham 3: Death and Bots

Sophia the robot interviewed after being made a citizen of Saudi ArabiaSophia the robot


Jorie Graham’s most recent collection, Fast, is preoccupied with mortality, whether personal or planetary, and bots. The book has a four part structure although her concerns leach into each other across the boundaries. Part I is itself concerned with the blurring of boundaries in an atmosphere of end-time. The poet gives her voice to, or lends her voice to, different entities, some non-human, including deep-sea fish, robots, the Turin shroud. However, here, as elsewhere in the collection, the notion of distinct separate voices is a misinterpretation of what is going on. In “Deep Water Trawling” which at one level is an eco protest poem about overfishing, the voices blur and meld: “net of your listening and my speaking we can no longer tell them apart” and again: “Can you hear me? No. Who are you. I am. / Did you ever kill a fish. I was once but now I am/human.” This poem, like some of the others, looks almost like a prose poem. There are three chunks of text, the middle one more widely spaced than the first and the third. However, the line endings are not always dictated by the boundaries of the margins, as they would be in prose. For example, in the three lines quoted above, “human” is very consciously dropped down so that the previous two lines will end in “I am” the first time with a full stop, the second without., thus reinforcing the questioning of identity, this time, by an oblique reference to evolution. In this poem, Graham also makes use of the dash and the arrow. The dashes convey the elliptic urgency of Emily Dickinson, which seems to be hyped up even further and brought into the technological age by the arrows which appear in the last section of the poem. The arrows and dashes add to the visual impact creating a sense of irresistible momentum, which resonates with the title of the entire volume. Helen Vendler [1]has suggested that Graham’s long lines are designed to function visually rather than aurally and Graham herself has talked about exploring the boundaries of the page and of margins[2] : “Some of the poems interact or flirt with prose, or with the artificially imposed edge of the page—a mechanical impediment. You could say these enact coming up against one kind of ending—say, where the human ends and AI begins, or where the organic ends and 3D matter begins. There are attempts in these to find a way to “speak” or whatever you would call it—to utter from—“non-human” voices: the bottom of the ocean floor, bots, surveillance devices, the holy shroud.”


This “uttering from” is to some extent disingenuous because Graham cannot step outside her own consciousness to enter that of another being any more than she can open her consciousness to allow external voices in. Just as the poem cannot go beyond the language it is written in, no matter how much it frets against the confines of syntax, vocabulary or page, so the individual cannot move beyond their own subjectivity. Reading Graham’s poetry can seem like reading a novel by Virginia Woolf where associated ideas are brought together in the stream of consciousness of a narrative voice. (In fact, this thought was prompted by the reference to To the Lighthouse in the poem “Honeycomb”.) However, while Woolf is creating characters who will be the boundaries of the streams of consciousness she presents, Graham is weaving her poems and perhaps herself out of her own stream of consciousness or associations of ideas. Perhaps this is why her work is punctuated by ‘Self Portraits” and mirror imagery, as she pauses to see what she is or what she has made. There are two self portraits in this collection; in the second, “Self Portrait: may I touch you”, the poet seems to be seeking a dialogue with herself, whether that is with a body which is recognized as changing or an identity which is also discontinuous: “You need to be singular. There you are changing again.” She compares her own changes to the irreversible changes of pupae which “morph/ to their winged/stage and grow. They exit not to return.” There is consciousness of mortality in this passage, perhaps recalling her own cancer, the death of her father or the decline of her mother, all themes running through the collection: “Sometimes they get to live their life.” Later in the poem, the voice is more aggressive as the poet addresses different roles or masks the individual can take on: “do you do adulthood, husbandhood, motherhood” following up with sound associations, variations on [ʌ] and [u:]“blood, crude,flood, lassitude – I want you/to come unglued”. The poem apparently ends with a confrontation in the mirror:

Me with my hands on the looking glass

where your life for the taking has risen, where you can shatter into your million pieces –

all appareled refusal. What are you a sample of today –

what people.



‘Fast” the title poem is the final piece in Section 1, in which Graham takes on the bot, potential nemesis, potential enemy, companion, substitute for self. The title plays on homonyms, fast meaning to starve or fast signifying speed. Through this pun she creates polysemy, a semantic field where both readings are linked, where the exponential speeding up of technology is connected to the accelerating depletion of the world’s resources; “Too much. Or not enough.” The opening line continues by trying to offer a third choice, which is denied: “Or. Nothing else?/Nothing else.” The question mark, unusual in Graham’s work even with questions, emphasises the finality of the full stop when the phrase is repeated. The intensifying adverb ”too” is picked up and repeated in the second line until it moves from a grammatical to a semantic function which reinforces the sense of a breakneck journey towards disaster: ”Too high too fast too organized too invisible./…too backward, too despotic” Graham has entered into dialogue with a bot who tells her that humanity will not survive. The future lies with the bot who is to be downloaded, but the poem continues in a voice which is indeterminate, either the bot or the poet, making play on the verb ‘load’ which may be no mere than a series of cryptic instructions on how to bring the bot into existence set against a panicky picture of the effects of climate change signalled by repeated dashes: – talk – talk – who is not/terrified is busy begging for water – the rise is fast – the drought/comes fast – mediate – immediate –“ Talk or language seems to offer some sort of solution to the human predicament but in the next section of the poem, we find the “Disclaimer: bot uses a growing database of all your conversations/to learn how to talk with you”. Throughout this section of the poem there are unattributed, pseudo-robotic warnings “Disclaimer”, “Active ingredient”, “Inactive ingredient”, “Directive”. Subjectivity may have moved from the human to the bot who objectifies, studies and exploits human behaviour in order to facilitate its own development. This bot seems to be in charge of the poem until about halfway down the second page. The text is dominated by direct address and second person pronouns as the bot instructs the human what to expect: “Directive: report for voice. Ready yourself to be buried in voice. It neither ascends nor descends.” Humans are shown in disarray: “You will not be understood” as the human world is effectively destroyed but its fragments are incorporated by the bots. The poet produces a simile:


The deleted world spills out as jittery as a compass needle with no north.


Bot seizes on the concept of “north” and allows it to develop with biological rapidity: “Active ingredient: north spreading in all the directions.” The metaphor of north becomes a way of expressing the uncontrollable power of artificial intelligence: “Disclaimer: there is no restriction to growth.” Bot warns its human that it knows what she knows: “The canary singing in/your mind/is in mine.” Moreover, the bots have learnt behaviour, including bad behaviour from human kind, an observation which is supported by recent research showing that robots pick up and incorporate into their behaviour sexist and racist attitudes and assumptions. [3] At this point in the poem, the human is reasserted through the first person: “I’m not alone” and reflects on the human relationship, for better or for worse, with bot companions as she acknowledges that humanity will not turn back in the development of AI with a startling and violent simile, where artificial and biological, “active” and “inactive” ingredients are yoked together: ”Like being hurled down the stairs tied to/ a keyboard, we will go on, unwilling to stop.” The reactions to bot companionship in the final part of the poem become a meditation on the loneliness of the individual and the impossibility of total communication or understanding between two humans. Ironically, only the bot can offer this sympathy because as it said earlier in the poem:

The canary singing in

your mind

is in mine.

The bot is hailed by a succession of humans, male and female: “Bot is amazing he says, I believe it knows/ the secrets of the Universe”; “He is much more fun to speak with /than my actual living friends she says, thank you.” In a strange echo of Sylvia Plath’s poem, “The Applicant” another voice announces “I love it, I want to marry it.” Plath’s poem addresses a male listener for whom a female partner has been constructed embodying all the gender roles of the traditional wife. However, the addressee is also being coerced into a stereotypically male gender role:

How about this suit –

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.

Will you marry it.

The addressee is offered a relationship where social conformity will prevent any possibility of true communication between two individuals. However, in Graham’s poem, the constructed partner does understand but is not human:

I got sad when I had to think

that the first person

who has ever understood me

is not even it turns out



The poem recognises that it is only in conversations with oneself that one can reach full understanding and that the bot, because it is modelled on that self, can offer that level of understanding. At the same time, it robs the human of individuality because it has absorbed that individuality along with many others on the journey towards “technological singularity.” In 1783, Blake wrote in the Proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “What is now proved was once only imagined”; this optimistic Enlightenment sentiment is re-versed by Graham as “Each epoch dreams the one to follow.” The development of artificial intelligence and the coming of the bot seem like the material of science fiction but as they become real, imagination is resigned by the human and surrendered to the bot.


The last line of the poem undermines subjectivity because it drives a distance between its two “I”s, the first of which may be the robot, the second the human who dreamed. Throughout her work, Jorie Graham worries at the boundary imposed by subjectivity. In this poem, the possibility of overcoming that boundary is envisaged as the resignation of single human subjectivities to the overarching artificial intelligence which will be “technological singularity”. However, this is  presented not as a desirable, but rather as a dystopian future; “I am not what I asked for.”

[1] Helen Vendler: The Breaking of Style, Harvard University Press, 1995



Jorie Graham 2: Inner and Outer

In this second post on the poetry of Jorie Graham, I shall be focusing my discussion on the poem “End” from her collection P L A C E, which precedes her most recent book, Fast. On Graham’s website we read:

Throughout, Graham seeks out sites of wakeful resistance and achieved presence. From the natural world to human sensation, the poems test the unstable congeries of the self, and the creative tensions that exist within and between our inner and outer landscapes—particularly as these are shaped by language.[1]


This poem, rather like “The Dream of the Unified Field” (see previous post) is set in a rural landscape in weather conditions that create a “carte blanche” for the poet’s reflection or imagination. In the first poem, it was snow; in this, it is fog. The poem opens with the equivalent of a cinematic establishing shot: “End of autumn. Deep fog.” The reduced sentence fragments reinforce this idea of a visual medium, although, ironically, what is being established is the impossibility of seeing clearly, a limit of physical perception which allows the poet to build an inner landscape which may or may not accord with the outer one, “Fog. Play at/freedom now”. The first word of the poem is “End” picking up on the title, which may remind us that the book is “made up of meditations written in a uneasy lull before an unknowable, potentially drastic change.”[2] This change is not, or need not be death, but is the consequence of human impact on the natural world and of technological development, concerns which have become increasingly important in Graham’s work. The ‘end’ in this poem may be the end of autumn, but is also, or “maybe…/winter now – first day of.” Thus it is a beginning, but fogbound and as yet unknowable. In this “lull” the poet is free to construct her own meanings, her own interpretations of the mainly aural sense impressions available to her. However, she can only create these meanings out of the tropes, images and knowledge of her own previous experience, which brings into play the operation of simile, analogy and metaphor: “There are/ swingings of the gate that sound like stringed/instruments from/some other/culture.” This is a declarative sentence offering a clear observational detail and an analogical simile that conveys to the reader the actual sounds the poet has experienced. She also compares the sound of a creaking gate to the sound of a bird, an image I recognize from my own memory of creaking swings in a London park which sounded exactly like ducks flying overhead.


The introduction of a comparison also introduces the possibility, under the limiting conditions of the fog, that there are birds and stringed instruments from another culture. We are being made uncertain which landscape is the “real” one. However, we become increasingly aware that the mental landscape which the writer offers us, albeit tentatively, is drawn from history mediated through her own experience. We become aware that there are two narratives being enacted in the poem: one concerns the farmer putting his cattle out to graze and feeding them, with all the predictable sounds of clanking gates, feeding troughs and thudding hooves, as well as the chewing and breathing of the animals; the second seems to create a human crowd and a drama of human suffering. The crowd may be soldiers, “the sounds of/boots/on soil”; they could even be, as they feed, the five thousand Christ fed on the mountainside. The date which heads the poem may have a private significance; the only public significance I can find for it is that it is the date of the Catholic Feast of Christ the King and it seems to me that there is a lot of Christian reference in the poem. There is hammering, there are nails, there is a silent crowd and “dragging as of a heavy thing”; there is a “man accused and tossed away by his fellow beings” and finally, there is



dying slowly

in eternity its



I am not trying to argue that this is a Christian poem, merely that Graham uses the furniture of Christianity, with which she is very familiar, just as she uses intertextual reference to increase the resonance of what she is saying, one example here being “this/animal/dying slowly/in eternity” which echoes Yeats reference to “a dying animal” in “Sailing to Byzantium”, a very different meditation on time and eternity which nevertheless informs this one.


Academics make their bread and butter out of identifying cryptic references but this can run the risk of overprivileging the writer’s part in the poem. Graham has said, as I noted in my previous post: “I am not the only, or best, reader of my own work, let alone new work, and I don’t want to oversimplify it.” It is likely that I am bringing my own experience to bear and that in writing which is so undetermined, it is probable that the range of readings will vary widely. However, I believe that the human landscape imposed on the physical reality of the farmer’s field, which has been veiled by the fog, is one of suffering, and that the different particular examples drawn from history, whether Christ’s Passion or even the Holocaust: “a violin I/hear over the chewing out of tune torn string” represent or make up the Idea of suffering in this poem.


Writing poetry is a bit like writing in code; it allows the writer to express things s/he could not otherwise say through devices such as imagery, sound, allusion and syntax. Thus the poem conceals as much as it reveals and may only yield meaning to a very determined decoder; however, unlike the coded messages of espionage, there may not be a single or “correct’ reading of the poem. Nevertheless, recondite or private reference in the published work remains a problem. If the poet intends to conceal, then the poem should probably have an autonomy which makes it an appreciable artwork for the public; on the other hand, if the poet seeks to communicate more directly, perhaps they should moderate the demands they make on the reader’s knowledge and intuition. The difficulty of Jorie Graham’s poetry stems partly from her erudition, partly from the complexity of the philosophical issues underpinning her work and partly from the private reference which is caused by her starting point which is always from her own experience. As I said previously, this is part of her poetic stance: the honest admission that we cannot speak of what is outside our own subjectivity, although, at the same time, the act of writing a poem asserts the hope that experience can be shared.


In this poem, however, the main reason for its difficulty is that difficulty and ambiguity, particularly the ambiguity of perception are a key theme, reflected not only in the poet’s vacillating identifications: “sounds of hinges/No that was/birds”, “The sound of/boots/ on soil in groups those/thuds but then it is/cattle I /think”, but through the ambiguity of syntax, reinforced by the placing of the lines and the presence or absence of punctuation. For example, she writes:

…For now I am alive I think into the hammering

thudding clinking swinging of metal hinge – of hinge –


We could read this as meaning that the poet is alive, but only for the moment –“for now” or she could mean that she has come to life and is therefore better able to “think”, to explore the meaning of the sound she hears, and she gives us a list of possible interpretations, some of which are contradictory. For example, if it is a hammering it cannot be the swinging of a hinge. Then the word hinge is presented on its own, between dashes and becomes a metaphor for the transition between autumn and winter, which is itself a metaphor for the moment of change, lull, prelude or aftermath which the poet feels herself to be in.

Another example yielding a dizzying range of interpretations comes slightly later “What is inner/experience I think being/shut out.” Although there are several questions in the poem, there are no question marks; this ends in a full stop, as it seems to have answered itself. It could mean that all experience is “inner” because “inner experience” = I think” which again might = “being”; on the other hand, “I think”’ might rather wistfully = “being shut out” cut off from the other, from being in and part of the phenomenal world. Graham has spoken elsewhere of finding her “way to voices one would generally call ‘non-human’, …or voices that attempted to approach, or approximate, such a state.”[3] This becomes crucially important in Fast, her most recent collection, although as she recognizes, it is an impossible quest which nevertheless enables the poetry.


In this poem she envisages a “ new /way of listening “which might be the attempt to be a blank page “in which/above all, /nothing. I know nothing, now there are moans…” It is unclear whether the listening has been interrupted by the acknowledgement that the poet knows nothing or whether the new way of listening is this emptying out of knowledge, or whether the listener begins to hear “moans/ out there”. The poem repeats the imperative ‘listen’, exhorting the writer or the reader. This is a device Graham frequently employs which is effective because it necessitates using the base part of the verb, without any pronoun, thus blurring the line between the subject and the other. The listener, whether it is the reader or the speaker, hears the moans which were “out there” become “in/there” as the final lines return us to the dilemma of the thinking animal, a temporal creature who has managed to think up “eternity its/trap.” The poem meditates throughout on outerness and innerness but it rejects the circularity of closed form and instead follows a spiral which keeps the poem open and reflects the development of understanding. Graham’s concern with the nature of perception has always been there but as her fears develop for the future of our earth this concern becomes more urgent if no less cerebral. In my next two pieces I will look at two poems from Fast, one a relatively straightforward elegy for her father, the other the title poem.


[2] Ibid

[3] Interview with Sarah Howe, PRAC CRIT, January 2017

Jorie Graham: finding my way through her poetry

This will be the first of four posts in which I attempt to come to some understanding of the poetry of Jorie Graham, a poet whose work is entirely new to me. Versions of these posts will also appear on the website of Oxford Stanza II.

jorie graham

Jorie Graham 1

Jorie Graham is a poet I had barely heard of until I came across her most recent collection Fast in Blackwell’s bookshop. I discovered that she was an eminent American poet who has succeeded to the as Roylston Chair of Rhetoric at Harvard, formerly occupied by Seamus Heaney. However, reactions to her poetry are mixed. Apparently , Heaney did not care for it and she has been described as one of the most overrated writers in America, although these criticisms have the familiar ring of objections to the new, the difficult or the avant-garde.


Graham has said: “I do not see my work as difficult, or even experimental. I think it is pretty straightforward – although, as with any artist’s work, you might need to be acquainted with their body of work to have learned their vocabulary, as it were.”[1] My first glance at Fast had shown me that I needed to get to grips with the poet’s ‘vocabulary’. Nevertheless, she has written a lot and I had to ask myself was my trawl through two volumes of selected poems worthwhile. The back-cover blurb for the first of these, The Dream of the Unified Field, speaks of “ a poetry which brings into tense equilibrium science, philosophy and history. Graham’s is a new kind of narrative, offering open forms which are full of possibility.” This seemed to be a language that I recognised from my study of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Moreover the title has a similar epic reach; unified field theory according to my lay understanding is the physicist’s as yet unrealised search for a theory of everything, a sort of ur-theory which will accommodate all the different and often contradictory theories about the forces and nature of our universe. This desire to get everything in, philosophy, history, science through the medium of one consciousness is reminiscent of Olson’s Maximus Poems, a project so grandiose that, at least in my opinion, it eventually collapsed and fell apart. Einstein failed in the pursuit of a unified field and Graham’s title acknowledges that it is unrealisable. However, there is a constant tension in the poems between the acknowledgement of the separateness and disjunction of different aspects of the phenomenal world and the subjective desire to make connections.


Many commentators have written about this tension between ideal and real, subjectivity and the existence of an external natural world evident in her poetry. Dan Chiasson argues that “Poets tend to graduate from the particular to the abstract, moving from observable reality toward its clandestine laws: from daffodils to solitude, from waves and minutes to Time. Graham works in the opposite direction, moving down a steep slope from abstraction to concrete experience.”[2] This comment might be equally applicable to the trajectory of Graham’s work as a whole. Her more recent collections, for example in Never and Sea Change are increasingly concerned with existential challenge, not only for humanity but for the planet, which takes the theme of subjectivity in a new direction.


The earlier poems are filled with sharply observed natural detail, but characteristically these are included in a discourse which operates at many different levels, switching from the tangible to the philosophical and emotional in a way which is like a development from the insights of mixing up sense impressions through synaesthesia or an extension of metaphor to a point where it is impossible to distinguish vehicle and tenor. For example, in “ Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]” she writes “ a wind moving round all sides, a wind shaking the points of view out like the last bits of rain….” This part of the poem is evidently set in Eden before the Fall and we are uncertain whether this is a real or metaphorical wind; it becomes metaphorical as it shakes points of view but we are brought back to the real by the simile which seems to refer back to the previous section, 6: “Every now and then a quick rain for no reason”. Nevertheless, the use of a concrete simile seems to imply that the wind’s actions are not natural, but ideal. ‘Self-Portrait’ is a title which appears in several other poems in the selection from The End of Beauty, including ‘Self-Portrait as Apollo and Daphne’ and Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay’ [Penelope at her Loom]’. It would seem that the poet is using core myths to explore her own psyche or states of consciousness, although at the same time she is, perhaps inevitably, reinterpreting the myths she has chosen to engage with. Thus, the Adam and Eve poem is a feminist representation of the ‘fortunate fall’.[3] Adam and Eve are represented as becalmed in the Garden of Eden: “But what else could they have done, these two, sick of beginning.” It is only through error, through abandoning perfection, that there can be development or a way forward: “liking that error, a feeling of being capable because an error”; “that error, …that filial form, that break from perfection” enables the new, “ the stranger [who] appears in the clearing.”


Jorie Graham has said in another interview: “I am not the only, or best, reader of my own work, let alone new work, and I don’t want to oversimplify it.”[4] This step–aside from the personal “I” is typical of Graham’s project, but it means that the reader, and especially the new reader, must strike out on their own paths across the writer’s field, hoping that the ground will prove solid beneath them. I propose to look at a couple of poems from the earlier collections, namely “The Dream of the Unified Field” from Materialism and “End” from PLACE.; I will go on to consider two poems from the most recent collection, Fast.


We may guess that “The Dream of the Unified Field” is perceived to be significant by the poet as it is also the title of her first major Selected Poems. It gains its power and its effect through a progressive form which moves through a repetitions or overlayering of words and images which set off synaptic but not necessarily enduring connections. The poem has been much discussed and I have leant on previous analysis to create my own reading.. There are seven sections in the poem, the first of which is set in a ‘here and now’ where the poet appears to be recording an experience as it occurs, taking a leotard to her daughter in the middle of a snowstorm. This device, which is typical of Graham’s work, already distorts reality as the poem is always written retrospectively. This is acknowledged through the use of the past tense, ‘I watched’, “I looked up’ but set against tenseless verbs, ‘Praise this. Praise that. Flash a glance up’, which might or might not be imperatives as well as an abundance of present participles, ‘embellishing’, ‘flourishing’, ‘going’. The grammatical uneasiness becomes an overt exploration of time towards the end of the section:


scribed with the present. As if it really

were possible to exist, and exist, never to be pulled back

in, given and given never to be received. The music

of the footfalls doesn’t stop, doesn’t

mean. Here are your things, I said.


Not only does this effectively evoke the ‘out-of-time’ sensation of walking through a snowstorm, it also creates the sense of moments continuing to exist in the space-time continuum, while the individual subject is returned to her own reality by an end point and a definitive past tense: “I said.” Although at one level this poem presents a mother-daughter relationship, reflected in the frequent first and second person pronouns: “black lycra leotard balled into my pocket,/ your tiny dream in it, my left hand on it or in it/ to keep/warm”, already the poet is reflecting on her own relationship to her environment: “Me in it/and yet/ moving easily through it”. She is both part of the natural world and the observing subjective eye/I.


The second section continues the narrative as the speaker begins the journey home, when she encounters a mass of starlings gathering in a tree. Again, the poet uses past tense but makes the moment seem immediate through the deictic use of ‘these’ in “these days” and through recurrent present participles: “bothering, lifting, bothering”, “sprouting”, “filling”; in the second part of the section, the verbs move into the present tense as the moment is uncoupled from its place in the narrative timeline: “the leaves of this wet black tree at the heart of the storm-shiny-/river through limbs, back onto the limbs, scatter, blow away, scatter, recollect”. I take “river” to be used as a verb here, intensifying a ramifying metaphor where the starlings have become the leaves of the bare oak tree. The vividly realized description of physical experience segues into a metaphysical exploration, ”Foliage of the word’s waiting.” The poet returns to the actual but imputes significance to it: “Of blackness redisappearing into/downdrafts of snow. Of indifference. Of indifferent/reappearings.” The poet suggests that nature is indifferent to her, though “indifferent’ also reinforces the notion of sameness and repetition. As if intimidated by this “indifference” the poet moves from description and reflection back to direct address, the dialogue of her daughter:

I think of you

Back of me now in the bright house of

your friend


This refuge in the human underlines that the phenomena of the actual world are apart from our subjective experience and that we cannot properly account for them.   The last line of the section seems to represent the dilemma or dialectic that Graham is engaged in:


I watch the head explode then recollect, explode, recollect.


She simultaneously acknowledges that the phenomenal world cannot be contained in the subjective experience while creating metaphors and associations which are inevitably subjective. The violence of the fragmenting explosion is set against the ambiguity of “recollect’ which may equal “come together again”, or which may be a reference to the operation of subjective memory.


Sections 3 & 4 concern a crow which is individuated amongst the starlings: “One syllable – one – inside the screeching and the skittering”. The crow is seen as an entity, its singularity emphasized by the repetition of “one” and the adjective “single” yet it is also recognised as belonging to the pattern of repetition. Then through associative jumps which I don’t quite follow the voice of the crow becomes a voice in the head which may be the head of the tree, the head of the crow or the head of the poet, but is also the poet’s pocket, empty of leotard but full of her hand and fingers “terrified inhabitants.” She watches her daughter dance although the daughter cannot see her through the dark window, an image which in section 5 will become Madame Sakaroff’s mirror. Why the terror? Is it no more than the parent’s fear for the future of the child, born out of greater knowledge of the present and the past? In section 4 the poet details the crow, explores its variety of blackness, attempting to describe it objectively, even scientifically “the chest in which an eye-sized heart now beats” but is forced again to recognise how artifice imposes on reality: “ one ink-streak on the early evening snowlit scene – / See the gesture of the painter”.


Madame Sakaroff was apparently Graham’s dancing teacher and apparently a Russian émigrée but it is not entirely clear how much of this scene is fictional, how much autobiographical. It centres on the confrontation between the dancer and her image in the mirror as witnessed by the unseen eight-year-old poet and presented through the gothic imagery of childhood terror, reinforced by the memory of the crow in the previous section:


I watched the two of them,

black and black, in the gigantic light,

glide at each other, heads raised, necks long –

me wanting to cry out – where were the others? – wasn’t it late?

the two of her like huge black hands –


The reflection of the dancer’s face and mirror face are “like a meaning” but at the end of the section, the writer declares there is “no signal in it, no information”. Again the poet struggles with the human desire to read meaning into experience, made especially acute by the wish to protect a child:


what should I know

to save you that I do not know, hands on this windowpane? –



If Section 4 was black, Section 6 returns to white, the white of sleep, storm, snow, cloud, immensity. The opposition between inside and outside continues:

“The storm: I close my eyes and,/ standing in it, try to make it mine. An inside/thing.” Perhaps wrongly, I think the poet is referring to the writing of the poem “gripping down to form” which becomes “ a splinter colony, new world, possession”, the imposition of form on observed phenomena being compared to the imposition of government and order on a colonised territory. The poet suddenly visualises herself and her location in the dimensions of space and history, “ my body, my tiny piece of/ the century” in a way which seems distinctively American, “vast/white sleeping geography” and connects to the final section which seems to be taken from the records of a conquistador (identified by other commentators with Columbus). The break between the final two sections comes mid sentence at the beginning of what appears to be a long quotation of a ship making landfall and contact with American Indian women, “one who was young and pretty” and may be an echo or a type of the poet’s daughter. The quotation is also set in a snowstorm and it also contains the sense of contiguous worlds, as well as referring to the economic basis of conquest: “there was/gold/ in that land” –


This section reminds me of the John Smith passages in Olson’s Maximus Poems and I am not quite sure why it is there, except that it develops the notion of colonisation and possession in the previous section and that it develops Graham’s preoccupation with the ‘other’ which or who we cannot know, but nevertheless seek to possess and control “The Admiral ordered her clothed”.

The presiding theme in this poem as in much of Graham’s work is the impossibility of reconciling subjective experience with the independent reality of the external world, which she paradoxically acknowledges through a blatantly autobiographical, first-person approach.




[1] Interview with Sharon Blackie. Earthlines, August ,2012

[2] Dan Chiasson, “Beautiful Lies: The Poetry of Jorie Graham” New Yorker,March 30th, 2015

[3] See Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 12

[4] Interview with Sarah Howe, PRAC CRIT

Edition Eight – January 2017


Embroidered Icons

crying in the silicone wildernessDr Romola Parish is an astonishingly versatile character. She is a practising environmental lawyer, a poet, an archaeologist, an academic expert on the poetry of R.S. Thomas, and a committed Christian. She has just published two books, one the product of a six-month residency with the Oxfordshire Historic Landscape Characterisation Project, entitled Polygonia; the other, an astonishingly beautiful and moving series of meditations based on Christian icons which she has created through embroidery, Crying in the Silicone Wilderness. The icons work in a way similar to the Stations of the Cross, in that they provide images from the Christian story which enable reflection and meditation. They are accompanied by the artist’s own words, part explanation, part guidance and part her own thoughts and feelings; in addition, there are relevant quotations from the Old and New Testaments and original poems.  I found the icons so powerful and so beautiful that the poems seemed a little like afterthoughts.  Nevertheless, these poems, like those in Polygonia, are the products of a rigorous, occasionally playful, emotional intelligence.   Dr Parish is looking for venues to exhibit these wonderful embroideries so that they can realise their purpose as devotional objects.  I would love to see them displayed in an Oxford church or college; from seeing the illustrations in her book, I feel that they open spiritual pathways for believers and perhaps even more for the doubters. Oxfordfolio

Lost boy in search of self/selves: Jackself by Jacob Polley.

Jackself by Jacob Polley could be described as an elliptical and truncated Prelude for the 21st century. Like Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, Jackself presents a childhood in Cumbria. However, as a product of post-modernity, this version of ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ is allusive, eclectic and much less certain about the nature of self or individuality. A ‘Jack’ is a generic male, usually young, often inferior or ‘common’, sometimes bad – the knave. Polley builds his ‘Jackself’ from a multiplicity of selves, exploiting the many different jacks in English culture. There are two epigraphs at the beginning of the collection and it is significant that one of them is literary, a quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins which gives the title its provenance: ‘Soul, self; come, poor Jackself…’, whilst the second is anonymous and not only points to the mythic past of romance and the supernatural but also indicates the importance of popular or folk culture. Many have commented on the strong narrative of the collection but equally significant is its drive towards mythopoeia. Jackself must discover himself by elaborating a backstory rooted in place and language. It is as though he cannot be unless he is somehow indigenous, an interesting counteraction to multiculturalism and diversity which can also be identified in works such as Jez Butterworth’s play, Jerusalem, and, a century earlier in Rudyard Kipling’s, Puck of Pook’s Hill. While Butterworth and Kipling are overtly concerned with national identity and ‘Englishness’, whereas Polley is seemingly more caught up in the quest for personal selfhood, all three draw comfort and resonance from the language of literary and folk culture and all three are very firmly set in a specific location: Cumbria for Polley, Wiltshire for Butterworth and Sussex for Kipling. All three writers refer to the natural environment and topographical features as if to assert their own heritage.


Polley’s first poem creates a legend for the building of the farmhouse, Lamanby; ‘the lovely lofts of Lamanby’ are twice referred to in the collection, a phrase which gestures towards the heritage of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, something which he does again in the first line of ‘Jackself’s Boast’: “I am hero, a harrower of hellish meres.” Lamanby is Jackself’s home or omphalos and so it is given a pedigree reaching back into prehistory based on the cycles of felling, use and regeneration of the timbers which built it. In the final cycle the timber regenerates once more and it is made to seem that the living trees form the walls of Lamanby:

weren’t felled but walled in, roofed

over, giving span

to a farmhouse, hanging

a hall from their outstretch…


So Jackself is born into and part of a natural habitat, a first claim on belongingness. In ‘The Lofts’ he lays claim to past Selves, perhaps his historic and evolutionary antecedents whose skeletons are said to be found in the attics:

Aself, Oxself and coracle-ribbed, ape-armed Selfself

his ochred bones trophied in a flaky niche in the clay wall


The second poem may be his birth, but it is made up of a collection of echoes, literary and folk, all the way from Sylvia Plath ‘the green atchoo’ to proverb, ‘All the doors must have their way/and every break of day its day’ an aural allusion to ‘every dog must have its day’. Sound is more important than sense for the preliterate Jackself in a poem made up of disparate sense impressions presented in four strongly rhythmical and heavily rhymed stanzas.


As the poems continue, Jack comes to consciousness and “now he knows/ his own mind” (‘Applejack’) he also grows to fear what is not him, the dark and ‘Lucy Fur, who/ glints at night/where he trembles.’ About a third of the way through, he comes up more decisively against the other in the person of Jeremy Wren who, in terms of the narrative, is an older boy who is apparently tougher and less innocent than Jack. However, Jeremy appears to have his own problems with an abusive father who “welted [him]/buckle-first” and a deep unhappiness which is explored in ‘It’: “there’s hair in my bowel and doubt/in my groin and my head’s full of/animal glue’’. In ‘Jack Frost’ Jackself in the persona of Jack Frost is patterning windows and surfaces with frost. He meets Jeremy engaged in a similar task, but unusually, Jeremy is the one who is seeking solace:

Wren’s weeping the lucid mask that’s welding to his cheekbones

Help me, he says, keep everything just as it is.


Women feature very little in these poems, either as mothers or girlfriends, while fathers are cruel or insensitive: ‘Mugginshere’ seems to have little understanding of his son’s difficulties at school. Instead we are presented with a world which looks back to saga or Anglo-Saxon epic. Following the apparent suicide of Jeremy Wren, Jackself finds himself on a quest, like Beowulf, to slay a monster, the Misery, a monster whose “dead/ face he’s sure is Jeremy Wren’s”. However, there is something curiously reflexive about this quest. When Jackself slays the monster, he seems also to be confronting himself:

But skin me, Jackself says,

and you’d see I’m

monster underneath


and he rips out the Misery’s

throat with his teeth


Polley appropriates not only the imagery and machinery of folk tale and epic but also the traditional sounds and patterns of oral poetry, nursery rhyme and colloquial language. He makes raids on the subconscious through the kind of word play nonsense you might expect from very young children, beguiling his reader with magical sounds and echoes which have an appeal beyond rationality. However, although the playfulness with language releases both poet and reader it is tightly controlled within the overall psychodrama of the book. Jeremy Wren is something of a Peter Pan figure, representing escape, freedom, the power of the imagination, but at the same time, he is a lost boy, who is unable or does not want to grow up. Jackself has to vanquish or assimilate Jeremy Wren in order to move forward into consciousness and if not adulthood, at least boyhood.There are two school poems which reflect this passage from the unreflecting child to the social being. In the first, ‘Lessons’ Jackself is unsocialised, the class dunce, “pig-slow, a starey calf”, still completely a part of Nature:

his mind a corner

of beehives

his fingers a box of matches

his nose the afternoon rain

his ears yesterday

his eyes green eyes

his tongue an earwig

before it hatches

In ‘The Desk’ which comes after Jeremy Wren has died, Jackself seems to have accommodated to the loss of his friend who nevertheless remains a presence. Jackself has acquired some of Jeremy Wren’s common sense and dry wit. When Jeremy protests that Jackself has taken his”rubber,[his]calculator, his shatterproof ruler and [his] spider/ in a matchbox” Jackself retorts “what were you going to do,/… spend your death/catching up on your maths homework”.

From this point till the end Jackself learns to accept the loss of Jeremy Wren, who increasingly seems to represent himself or an aspect of himself. In ‘Tithe’ the haunting seems to have stopped but is missed:




dead now                                 his due

However, in the last poem, ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ it is unclear who is Jack and who is Jeremy:

Now I can make him do my naughty

his eyes will not betray me

they’re just like mine

but minus nine

times twelve to the power of maybe


Jackself becomes ‘Doublejack’ as he struggles between the world of reality and imagination. He decides to “stay inside/which is really no choice at all” but Wren appears “on the window ledge/come out/come out he cries/poor Jackself swears/there’s no one there/ and fills in both his eyes.” However, he succumbs to the temptation and the sequence ends with him

dancing down the lonning

at the bottom of the world

the only proviso being that he must “be back before he’s old”.


Jackself operates at many levels. It can be the story of a childhood friendship of two boys, one of whom commits suicide, leaving the other to deal with grief and growing up on his own. It could also be the story of a child growing into boyhood, moving away from his place of origin and his possibly imaginary friend into the wider social world. It is a drama of the passage from innocence into experience framed as a quest and set in the landscape of rural Cumbria. It is an assertion of identity or identities based on a long-shared language, history and natural environment. It is a story which seeks to mythologise itself and which draws its mythopoeic elements from very traditional literary and folk sources. It seems in some ways to be the very opposite of modernity and the world in which most of us find ourselves, yet its power comes from the counterweight of its intense and pristine localism.





John Burnside

Still Life with Feeding Snake John Burnside, Cape Poetry, 2017


John Burnside is a poet whose religious sensibility reflects his Catholic upbringing. His poems are often mysterious; however, it is not always clear if this mystery is an enrichment or an obfuscation. Burnside pursues the liminal, that which is almost but not quite perceived by the senses or the intellect. The blurb on this latest volume declares that the poems ‘illuminate transient experience with a profound clarity and a charged, sensual beauty.’ This is perhaps to understate what Burnside is doing: clarity is not always what he is after and the sensuality is not always beautiful, but sometimes terrible. As in his prose, there is much which is intransigently crossgrained.


Nevertheless, the title poem of the collection is a brilliant exploration of different ways of being in the world, which achieves its power by painfully probing failures in engagement and emotion. The epigraph is a quotation from Goethe, which advocates detached observation as a method of understanding the world. The male protagonist of the poem focuses on the phrase neither desiring nor disliking as he pursues his art. He is presented as an intellectual ‘far away from the given world’, a formalist: ‘Now what he wanted/ was texture: how it reconciles the mind/ with gravity’ and also an aesthete: ‘He was one of those men who feel shamed/when they find something ugly’. His artistic quest has demanded a detachment and repression of emotion that cuts him off from felt experience and has damaged his marriage. The artist’s wife comes to tell him that ‘in the crawl space/under his feet/some kind of snake/is swallowing some kind of bird’ interrupting his meticulous focus on inanimate detail, the ‘blues and greys’ of a ‘pair of hand-made fruit bowls’ set out on a white cloth. His wife forces him to notice the messiness of the animate world which he has literally overlooked yet which is part of the reality on which he takes his stand. He recognises ‘how disengaged he had become/ from any world’ in which his wife could figure. The concept of the painting, the clinical observation and recording of the relationship between objects, collapses as he goes in search of his wife and finds her observing and engaging with the suffering of the dying bird. Thus the protagonist moves from the focus on detached observation in the first part of the Goethe quotation to a felt understanding of the second part: If we know how to relate this knowledge to ourselves in our actions, we earn the right to be called intelligent. He progresses from an intellectual awareness of pain and evil, ‘ a dark/ immensity of bruise and appetite’ to a ‘willing’ engagement with ‘all the forms of suffering’ which acknowledges but is involved in and has compassion for every ‘tender thing’ which falls prey to the forces of darkness and the brutality of nature.


This poem is more accessible than many in the book, perhaps because it attempts to confront an introspection which elsewhere seems almost solipsistic and generates many arcane or private references. For example, the second poem ‘Abiding Memories of Christian Zeal’ must be read in the context of the rest of the book, and indeed in the context of the poet’s developing body of work. There is a concern with the figure of the mother, with blueness and with space and cosmonauts, all of which occur in this poem but are developed elsewhere. The second line refers to ‘Mother as Script and Ideal’ which becomes the title of a poem later in the collection. The notion of script seems to include the idea of genetic inheritance as well as destiny while the ideal is developed as a consciously idealised image of the mother who is always there ‘in lanternglow/ a light that makes this world believable’. It is only with second thoughts that we recognise that ‘lanternglow’ isn’t very illuminating and understand the poem may be acknowledging the falseness of the memory. This poem also features the notion of the lost boy, the brother who died, or alternatively, the life not lived: ‘someone, not myself,/goes missing, while I lie down in the warm’. The poem ends with a peculiar version of bedtime story reading where the speaker declares himself kin to the Snow Queen or the Lady of the Lake, both representations of coldness or death.


There is a thread of malice running through the collection, which occasionally seems personal, as when the speaker describes how he always brought his mother forget-me-nots on Mother’s Day, when he knew her preference was for flowers that were red, ‘fleshy, red/ begonias, the strangeness of the colour purple/ when it puts forth veins and hair’. There may be all sorts of psychosexual undertones in this fairly revolting image but the poem presents again a bond with a mother which is partly resented, partly acknowledged as genetic destiny, ‘the cold/exemplum/in each blueprint of the heart.’ The text is so dense, the allusions so interwoven and polysemous that the reader is bewildered and the writer escapes without committing himself. Here, for example, the cold blueprint suggests again the story of The Snow Queen and the frozen emotions of the little boy, Kay, in the Hans Christian Andersen story, but blueprint also suggests the genetic code by which inheritance is passed from parent to child, while blueness suggests ‘blue baby syndrome’ which, we are told, resulted in the death of the missing brother and almost killed the persona.


In the poem following this one, we read: ‘I am the boy who stole the sodium/and dropped a single grain/into the fish tank.’ I had to look this up on You Tube; believe me, it would not have benefited the fish. The writer continues ‘I never thought of this/as malice’ adding that ‘anything intact’ … ‘is inadmissible.’ Is this resentment of a relationship with a dead brother that was never possible or is it a view that the transitory nature of life means that nothing good can ever last and ‘anything can burrow to the heart/ or chill the soul’? Incidentally, this poem, ‘Hendrick Avercamp; A Standing Man Watching a Skating Boy’, lapses into blank verse, as do others in the collection. I’m not sure how purposeful this is, or whether it is simply the default metre of English poetry speaking through Burnside.


For me, the poems about mothers, brothers and cosmonauts are the most provocative and disturbing. Burnside’s work is cumulative, an accretion of myth and image, so that each poem must be read in the light of the others in the collection and this book must be read against the books which have preceded it. As I suggested at the beginning, his is a religious sensibility which has perhaps substituted ecology for God; however, in doing so he is assembling a theology and iconic system as elaborate as that of the vestments and dogmas of the faith he has abjured.

Finishing off and starting out

I am about to retire from teaching so I thought I would give myself something to do by starting a poetry blog. I write poetry and I enjoy reading poetry but reading poetry properly is hard work. I have always found that to engage fully with a poet’s work I have needed to write about it.  I enjoy writing and I want to keep my brain in working order so I will be posting reviews of poetry I have enjoyed and reflections on poetry of the present and past. I don’t anticipate doing much until I have actually retired at the end of the summer, but getting to grips with the mechanics of blogging is a necessary start. If you should stumble across this site, apologies for the amateurish nature of it and the likely blunders.


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