Issue # 188 - David Hickey

David Hickey


Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare Poems by Jeanette Lynes (Hamilton, ON: Buckrider Books, 2015, 80 pp., $18.00).

Karyotype by Kim Trainor (London ON: Brick Books, 2015, 97 pp., $20.00).

a tree planted in summer by Ling Yu (Paris: Vif Éditions, 2015, 46 pp., US$10.00).



“Here is a delicate and graceful hand naming the fragile materials of poetry.”


The above quote is Dionne Brand’s vivid and insightful blurb on the back of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s volume of poetry, Small Arguments, published in 2003. Thammavongsa’s minimalist pieces sparked off the “fragile materials of poetry” illustrate how it is that the same elements of this art can be taken up daintily or … otherwise. I make this point to draw attention to the differences between, on the one hand, the heavy and hyper-referential style of two of the volumes reviewed here: Jeanette Lynes’ Bedlam Cowslip and Kim Trainor’s Karyotype and, on the other, the spare imagistic turns in a tree planted in summer, by Ling Yu. All three poets are accomplished in their own right and do not need comparisons to other poets to be appreciated. But, there are birds to be terminated here and, in a review of this length, only a few stones at hand.

     The subtitle of Lynes’ Bedlam Cowslip, is: “The John Clare Poems.” References to the life and writings of Clare and some of his fellow romantic poets and assorted Clare scholars appear regularly in Lynes’ poems, and archaic 18th and 19th century diction — including slang — peppers many of her lines. In fact, there is a sixteen-piece bibliography appended  to  the text. Hence, you read these poems with two hands: one holds the place of the poem, and one the place of the notes. I resisted the google and went with my own reading background and memory of Clare; I don’t think Lynes’ poetry suffered because I relied solely on my own resources and her notes.

     And certainly the pleasure afforded by such a gifted conductor of these fragile materials was not diminished. Lynes writes consistently with a tight command of tone and image:


            Miss Kent, for her volume, seeks advice

            on parish birds. You little iconoclast

            he thinks. His skull crackles blue ache.

            Has she even seen those birds?


            No birds for the girl’s lyrical ballast.

            She trundles off, huffs over the heath,

            her disappointment tight as stays.

            He broke a violin string.


Throughout, she recreates the Clare half-century in big and small ways. While many of the poems attend to the minutiae of the rural landscape (birds, haymaking, traditional cures, lime burning, etc.), many others name-check the newsmakers and the headlines: Lord Byron; John Keats; the Enclosure Acts. Overall, though, it doesn’t seem to be her intention to submerge her readers in Clare’s world so much as it is to celebrate John Clare’s sensibility, as “The Briefest Nature Poem Ever Writ” makes clear:



                                    sod off


Many of the poems are Clare biography-riffs onto which Lynes attaches contemporary poetic materials. She conflates a self-loathing hipster romantic longing with Clare’s own doubts about the success of his project. In “On Emmonsail Heath” the half-mellowed-out voice of some minor 21st century Lear confronts a world gone mad.


            Bullocks on my heath — a mere trope.

            I’ve never stood on Emmonsail Heath

            so why don’t I just zip it? Me with my

            sherbet, buzzy computer,

            bourgeois craft-beer barleycorn.

            My on: an awning rent, a rip large enough

            to drive a rhetorical lorry through.

            Yet I love the show —

            bumbarrel aerobatics,

            Clare’s avian cast, flapping, flitting,

            soshing odd in the ling.

            Here I am now, entertain me!


Further on, in the same poem, a gypsy appears to epitomize all these mentalities: grunge, technophilia, and ironic cool. These juxtapositions usually work because Lynes is respectful of each ingredient. (Sometimes not, as in “To the Prizefighters” whose David Bowie allusion this reader found jarring.)

     Lynes’ collection takes a dramatic turn mid-way through Part III when John Clare’s madness becomes the focus. Here, biography becomes more obvious. Nevertheless, the poet masters the material, even as she works the edges of bitterness. The allusions are more to Clare’s own time and contemporaries (Keats, Byron, Mary Lamb, Shakespeare’s plays, his own wives — real and imagined) and the settings bleaker and less playful. Always, though, the poems portray Clare’s mania with sensitivity and intelligence.


                                           … He passes the last

            standing willow, his old pin-and-thread

            fishing spot, the laughing ghost boys

            with their proggling sticks, his own ghost.

            He has no map. Tramps a crankled course,

            soodles among cowslips, careful

            not to climb trees (this never

            turns out well). He’d like to see what grasses

            see. Three crows signal some brink.

            Still no Keats.

            Only fields akin to some great, ruined wheel —

            spokes, not grid — circle, spire, a rounding of home.


                                    “The Edge of The World, A Theory”


It’s an admirable feat to throw pebbles in the pond called Poor John Clare and interpret the rings this way. And, today, as her last golden eagle disappears from the English countryside, it’s worthy of Clare’s legacy.

     I also did not google ‘karyotype’, Tarim Basin, mummies of Ürümchi, or the Beauty of Loulan, even though these are some of the fragile materials of poetry that Kim Trainor employs in her collection, Karyotype. Again, this is two-handed poetry requiring repeated reference to endnotes. As with Jeanette Lynes, I do not feel that I missed anything by not expanding on Trainor’s own reported research. Her poems are not weighed down by an obtrusive reliance on extraneous data so they move quickly along a quasi-narrative trajectory that calls forth the emotion she’s aiming for. There is a constant tightening of the focus through an unmediated and concise language that brings the reader closer and closer to the centripetal centre. Every image is ultimately particular and subjective. There is little resonance: no ‘great soul’ observes the goings on. There is only the plaintive voice of the poet regretting, regretting, regretting.

     Trainor’s meditations on the mummies of Ürümchi pass over the ghoulish in the name of the aesthetic and the philosophical. DNA is our age’s Great Chain of Being and most of these poems explore, with and without metaphor, the bred-in-the-bone relationships in our little genetic village.


                                                        … She is past

                        caring, her body now a manuscript

                        of faded letters and soft words.


                        of mourning; comb and spindle,

                        whorl and winnowing tray, all her craft

                        long forgotten as she is left, thinned


                        to paper and clots of ink

                        that once ran clear in her, her life’s

                        illumination, her life


                        resolved to heat-glazed onion skin,

                        to mute tendrils of kin.

                        I think I might be of her kind


                        deep in my own unconsecrated skin.


                                                                    from “III”


There are 23 of these excavations in the first section of Trainor’s collection, entitled “Karotype.” And, later, in section three, there is a handful more. Throughout, the bodies of long dead children and adults stir up the poet’s confusion as often as her sympathy. In fact, the mix of sympathy and confusion is the right way to respond to something so close and yet so distant. Mixed metaphors and strings of synonyms pour out onto the page as if the speaker is surrendering to a rather helpless insouciance.


                        The crocuses that were stiff blue flames

                        are broken now, their wrung necks

                        laid on banks of moss. All the same.


                        Life furls somewhere below.

                        I lie with them in pearls of bone,

                        in dark earth that shudders faintly


                        without a sound.


Another of Kim Trainor’s centres into which her poems lean is Eastern European and Russian literary and political history (section two). Again, these are book-based and library-bred poems.  But, unlike better known poems spun off of urns or paintings or symphonies, they are not paeans to high culture. Rather, they are raw responses to the suffering of dead ancestors, both the famous and the unknown.

     The fourth and final section of Karyotype, entitled “Nothing is Lost,” is based upon the second Book of Belongings published by the International Committee of the Red Cross containing “2,702 photos of clothes, jewellery and other personal effects found on exhumed bodies of persons who disappeared” around Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Trainor responds to these photos in a series of 26, eight-line abecedarian poems. As an example:


            has entered into the interior of the other person’s seeing

            hat drawn over contours of hair, skin, bone threaded with vein

            hat lined with felt for warmth

            having small stitches

            here a hand laboured

            here in this earth

            hundreds of artifacts worn and carried



 The format fits for its stark simplicity: how elseto react to a catalogue so harrowing?

     The final volume under consideration is a tree planted in summer, by Taiwanese poet Ling Yu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. These are 15 poems—– the original Chinese on facing pages — taken from Ling Yu’s collection, Fields and Gardens / Five Forty-Nine P.M. (2014), which won New Poetry Honourable Mention for the Wu Zhuoliu Literary Award (which I did google). These are stand-alone poems that strip the “fragile materials of poetry” to their contemplative bones. They expect very little from the reader beyond a close and intense attentiveness. Human beings are seldom a force in these poems. Instead, nature abides.


                        now the garden darkens slightly because

                        fruits enlarge gradually, leaves fleshy

                        and a deep green



                        white —

                        a mysterious visitor —



                        I like the fact that he has no scheme —


                        quietly he walks to the front

                        heard by some unheard

                        by others

                                                            from “Autumn · September”


The translator’s introduction explains her principle of selection for this smaller volume. These are “train poems” written during Ling Wu’s “frequent train rides from Ilan … to Taipei…. Like a train, these transport us from one time-space to another, back and forth from the pastoral to the urban.” Dylan wrote that it takes a lot to laugh but it takes a train to cry, and Ling Wu knows this to be true. Her irony is light but her pathos is dramatic. In “Toucheng — Elegy for F


            … the train passes through a tunnel

            and trees blacken


            and pale blue drapes brighter than cobalt blue

            slowly fall off the train windows




            at that moment you hear

            a clock fall off a valley

            cry softly like a cicada

            skim past water on the right stirring

            the light slumber of Turtle Island


            a conductor punches the tickets and not knowing why

            he says thank you and bon voyage

            the words I want to tell you


It’s the not knowing why that best captures this poet’s particular handling of her fragile materials of poetry.

     Indeed, for all three of these poets, it would seem that the yearning is all. More and more of our poets abjure painting big pictures. Of course, we don’t accept grand narratives from our social scientists or teleologies from our natural scientists, but it is puzzling to me how and why not knowing why has become the safest place for our artists to stand.  Go looking for certainty and there’s only Kanye, et. al. left! Of these three poets, only Ling Yu lets God in, but always with self-defeating reservations: “I know God’s strength is limited,” (“Tail”). (And neither would I take seriously iron age religio-fantasticals anyway.) Would that the subtleties implied in Brand’s phrase “fragile materials of poetry” not preclude verdicts. Or what’s a heaven for?